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Book review: “The Physician” by Noah Gordon

Malcolm Streitfeld

Anchor Contributor

Image via Ekrulila/Pexels

It's perhaps not outlandish to claim that from the first millennium BC up through the 21st century, history has been repeatedly glorified, rewritten and embellished. Oftentimes, the past is heavily sanitized until only a fraction of the truth remains.

Relieving then, Noah Gordon’s historical epic “The Physician” succeeds in subverting this unfortunate trend. Set in the 11th Century AD, the story follows a barber-physician named Rob Cole as he journeys from England to Persia to become a properly trained master of medicine. Along the way, he must grapple with ancient religious dogma and accept that everyone must eventually pass on. In addition to this, despite his best efforts, the sad truth is that not every patient can be saved.

Some writers might choose to paint a romantic picture of the Golden Age of Islam ala Disney’s 1992 classic Aladdin, but Gordon’s depiction of Persia is refreshingly free of such archaic Orientalist viewpoints. The cities of this empire that once controlled what is now Iran, before by the time the book begins being seized by the Arab Abbasid Caliphate, is certainly one where corruption lurks beneath a gilded facade.

On its streets and within the palace of the Shah, commoners and noblemen alike constantly jockey for positions of power. Muslims and Jews live alongside each other, separated only by the walls of their respective quarters. Despite these barriers, blood-boiling prejudice still consumes the two groups. Anyone who breaks the law will endure brutal, unrelenting punishment.

The Shah himself has everyone walking on glass as he’s constantly swayed by a lust for glory and conquest. If a citizen wasn’t careful, they could find themselves in an instant going from greatly pleasing the Shah to losing their head. To make matters worse, the Shah’s own vizier clearly is one to be wary of.

As a kid, I couldn’t finish reading both “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Call of the Wild” because I at the time had trouble with books where animals suffered and tragically passed away. But “The Physician” helped me overcome this obstacle to the point that those two stories are now on my reading list. It taught me that death is a natural process which should be revered and respected instead of feared and avoided. You can’t run away from it. You must indeed accept that a person’s time is at an end, that it's finally time for them to rest.

It's all a part of the cycle of the planet. To quote Colin Baker, who played the Sixth Doctor on “Doctor Who,” “Planets come and go. Stars perish. Matter disperses. Coalesces, re-forms in other patterns, other worlds. Nothing can be eternal.” Without death to make life finite, it could not be treasured so fondly.

Pick up “The Physician,” I highly recommend it. This incredible odyssey across two continents is sure to bring you to tears. It serves as a reminder to treat everyone you meet nowadays with the utmost kindness.

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