Finding good books is like mining for treasure. For this reason, I tend to review excellent finds — books that have been overlooked or forgotten. The Physician by Noah Gordon is a perfect example. This epic novel is set in 11th-century London, a time when the city is plagued by extreme poverty and overrun by drunks, thieves, and cutthroats. When Rob Cole, our young protagonist, is orphaned at age nine, he fears being passed over by adoptive families and cast into slave labor. A fortuitous break comes his way when he is taken in by a traveling barber-surgeon, the medieval equivalent of a snake oil salesman, flimflam man, and healer rolled into one. Under the guidance of his devious tutor, Rob travels the English countryside as a barber-surgeon apprentice, lancing boils, treating coughs, and hawking their all-cure elixir, which was nothing more than apple brandy mixed with a host of questionable herbs.
It is in one of the villages that Rob discovers his gift of touch when he foresaw a patient’s death with a touch of a hand. At first, he is horrified by the discovery, for he experienced the same morbid sensation when he touched his mother’s hand the day before she died. Compounding his fear is the grim possibility of being accused of witchcraft by the clergy. But as the years went by and the gift continues to manifest itself, he begins to realize that healing is his destiny. When his mentor dies 10 years after they first met, Rob, now a young man, is free to pursue his calling. The calling sends him on a dangerous journey to the Near East, through the bandit-plagued countryside of Byzantine Europe, Turkey, and Syria disguised as a Jew so he could study medicine in the best medical university in Persia (where Jews are accepted, but not the crusading Christians).
The novel has the flavor of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, but with a deeper character development and story arc. The narrative is fast-paced, one engrossing scene unfolding into another, revealing yet another adventure, danger or discovery. The intensity of Rob’s desire to unearth the secrets of healing is admirable and the portrayal of Bagdad and Persia as the center of advanced medicine is intriguing. It was interesting to see the comparison between the crude monastic treatments practiced in Europe which relied heavily on bleeding versus those practiced by the famed Avicenna in Persia where illnesses were scientifically studied and complex surgeries such as cataract removal were performed. Vivid descriptions permeate throughout the book such that one gets the feeling of actually being in the dusty streets of ancient Isfahan skirting legless beggars and camel dung. An insightful and unforgettable read.