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Posted on 17 Mar 2020 in Fiction | 5 comments

KIM KELLY Walking. Reviewed by Jessica Stewart

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Kim Kelly’s newest novel is a story of love, ambition and prejudice in the medical world.

When Kim Kelly stumbled across the true story of how a brilliant German–Australian orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Max Herz, had been interned as an enemy alien during World War I, she was immediately drawn in. Soon she started to imagine the character of Lucy Brynne, a protégée of Dr Hugo Winter, her fictional rendering of Dr Herz. Lucy would become the instrument through which Kelly would recreate this story of genius and humanity, and the sadness and waste of craven exclusion.

Lucy first meets Dr Winter as a small child. From a poor family, she is brought to him by a charity for surgery on her leg. Orphaned at 14, Lucy comes to live with Dr Winter and his family; he sees in her a light, a spark, that is missing from his relationship with his own daughter. He mentors her in a career as a specialist physiotherapist and when Walking opens, it is the late 1940s and Lucy is working at Sydney Hospital.

Those years after World War II were a period of great change in orthopaedics as the discipline moved away from its bone-setting origins. The polio epidemic, diseases such as tuberculosis and rickets, combined with the toll of war injuries, brought treatment of the skeleton to the fore. Told through alternating points of view, the book brings us Lucy and Dr Winter’s perspectives; a third voice is Dr Eliot Slade, a professional rival of Dr Winter’s and a violent and deeply jealous man. As Kelly notes in the Afterword, Slade is a distillation of the entrenched powers which tried to thwart Dr Herz, threatened by his advances in orthopaedics and his work with impoverished children: ‘[A] stubborn bloc within the medical establishment seemed not to have moved into the twentieth century at all,’ valuing its elite status over public good.

Kelly shows how unchecked power tries to asphyxiate any challenge (bringing to mind a certain US president) and is driven by fear of ‘the other’. In Walking’s Australia, that was Germans, Jews, women, and the poor:

[Dr Winter] did not believe for a moment that his fellow doctors could be so petty in their professional jealousies or doubts in his abilities that they would prevent him giving what he could of himself for the nation.

But they could, and they did. Like Max Herz, Dr Winter’s internment lasted five years, continuing beyond the end of the war.

Poverty has cruelled the bright Lucy’s chances in life. Her struggle contrasts with the mediocre talent of Eliot Slade, who glides through a world where the rules are set in his favour. She berates herself: ‘People like you don’t become doctors. You’re just a woman. Just a little half-starved stray.’ Orthopaedics has a reputation as a blokey specialisation and in the 1940s a woman physiotherapist, let alone a woman surgeon, was rare. Kelly’s light touch shows the constraints of sex and class, and – a recurrent theme in her work – the incalculable horror of war.

Jim Cleary, the book’s final voice, is a returned soldier with a badly broken leg – and post-traumatic stress disorder, though this condition would not be recognised for decades. War makes machines of men and reflection is stored up for later. Kelly’s writing is always fluent; sometimes it is so lovely, one can almost see the words slipping off the page, remoulding as pictures in our heads: ‘He stares up at the ceiling fan, and I feel his worry gathering there like a cloud.’ Jim’s resignation, his helplessness about his injury, is survivor guilt – most of his squadron is dead – and it falls to Lucy’s training, knowledge of his injury, and finally her love, to stage a dramatic intervention to prevent an unnecessary procedure by the loathsome Dr Slade.

This is a love story but not all Kelly’s endings are happy. Dr Winter’s daughter has become a stranger after his internment. There is sadness in the child’s sense of abandonment, the loss of a relationship never allowed to flourish. Kelly’s clear-eyed reckoning of the toll of trauma, and its many guises, shows how private pain sometimes cannot be expunged by money or work or success or community, or even love. Still, love is key and so is hope. Kelly finds stories in worlds we know little about. Walking is one such story and leaves a reader with hope.

Kim Kelly Walking Jazz Monkey Publications 2020 PB 362pp $29.99

Jessica Stewart is a freelance writer and editor. She can be found at www.yourseconddraft.com where she writes about editing, vagaries of the English language and books she’s loved.

You can buy Walking from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

5 Comments

  1. A very thorough and seductive review by Jessica Stewart.
    As always, I want to know more about the author.
    Certainly will google Kim Kelly.
    Is it beyond policy to include some lines about authors in this much-valued site?
    Authors are also heroes.

    • Hello Jan
      Glad you enjoyed the review. There is a link to Kim Kelly’s author site at the bottom of the review in the line giving the publication details – Kim’s name is in red, indicating you can click on that and go to her website.

  2. A novel thought in the Year Of Coronavirus.
    Next Monday I hope to turn 79.
    Living happily in near-solitude, but with many books, in the Philippines.
    What fun to break the mold and find a few birthday greetings here on March 23.
    Shouldn’t life be a game?

    • Wishing you a Happy birthday Jan??
      Books really are one of life’s finest companions, so I shall seek out Kim Kelly’s book.
      Lovely to meet Lucy in Longford the other day – kindly assured me our dog, Benji, had been a cute, beautiful boy when being clipped – at home he is a right little scamp!!!
      Stay well in these weirdest of times xxx

      • Mary, you are magnificent.
        Thank you.
        In a Skype call yesterday Lucy mentioned that she’d had the pleasure of clipping your Benji.
        I wondered if “Benji” was a body part.
        Once again the significance of March 23 escapes lucy’s attention…
        An annual occurrence, which I will gently drop into conversation tomorrow … when it’s too damn late!