WhiteCoat, RM25.00, ISBN 978-967-14956-0-5
Contemporary Fiction, 2017
It may be tempting to evaluate Malaysian authors on a more lenient set of standards compared to native English-speaking authors, but that would be, I feel, a rather condescending kind of treatment to give these authors. May as well give them participation trophies while we’re at it, that kind of thing. Beni Rusani’s Breathe is touted as the first ‘Malaysian medical novel’, but I found this more of a medical soap opera, actually.
We meet Dr Adam, a cardiologist who one day experiences a heart attack. This compels him to embark on a soul searching journey to reconnect with Diana, the woman he loves, and recollect lessons learned from his past interactions with his mentor Mad Doc and various other secondary characters. To top it off, it is touch and go whether Adam will make it to the last page well enough for a happy ending.
That’s the basic premise. This story goes back and forth from present day to flashback, so there is never a dull moment here.
Now, Mr Beni’s narrative is clean and very readable, and there is a discernible natural, engaging quality to his prose. Therefore, Breathe is one book that can be easily read and digested in one sitting. There are some point of view mix-up that can be confusing to follow, though, such as when one person’s point of view abruptly jumps to another person’s within the same paragraph, or when the author slips in details in a person’s point of view – details that the person should not be privy to (such as another person’s thoughts). Every time I come across hiccups such as these, I am forcefully prevented from getting too engrossed in the story.
But a bigger issue is how the story has so many maudlin soap opera tropes that anyone familiar with these tropes can practically map out the entire story early on, right down to the saccharine and melodramatic deathbed declarations by folks I know would eventually die the moment they show up. On one hand, it is good that the medical emergency and trauma aspects of the story are not too over the top – the author being a cardiologist himself allows him to include some medical and procedural details without getting too technical or textbook-like – but the dramatic aspects of the story are often too sentimental for my liking. The characters here rarely come to life; they resemble stereotypical soap opera characters going through a very familiar script.
I’m cutting Breathe some slack because it is a debut effort, and I do feel that the author has a natural engaging quality to his writing style. This one is very obviously a debut effort, however, with enough rough around the edges to make it a rather bumpy read at the end of the day.