The Strength of Bone is about what happens when people bend until they break and then bend even further because they have to — because nobody else will do what they do. Lucie Wilk’s debut novel, published Sept. 10, follows three people in a struggling African hospital: Henry Bryce, a North American doctor reeling from the loss of his child and marriage; Iris, Henry’s nurse and translator, who herself is torn between her present and her past; and Jakob, who volunteered at the hospital after finally convincing his mother to receive medical treatment there.
All three characters are detailed, unique and undeniably human. Their pain is clearly articulated and lingered with me long after I turned the last page. Henry constantly battles the limitations of an understaffed and underfunded hospital. He often loses. Iris suffers under what her educated life has stolen from her — her family, her spirituality and her happiness. Meanwhile, Jakob worships the magic of Western medicine until he sees it fail again and again.
The book doesn’t shy away from questions of race and colonialism. Henry’s skin colour, tall stature, red hair and education constantly evoke mistrust from patients already nervous about the treatment of their bodies and the non-spiritual control from outsiders. Iris herself isn’t sure if she trusts his intentions. Jakob worships Henry, until he sees that Western meddling can be worse than if the patient was left to die a quicker, natural death.
What struck me most was the battles that Henry throws himself into for the sake of what is right and wrong. Around him, other doctors and nurses accept what they can’t control and move on without protest, hoping to do better with the next patient. They don’t have a lot of choice as they always lack something: beds, blankets, medicine, staff or sanity. Everything must be inhumanly rationed or it is lost. Henry doesn’t ration himself or the resources, even when it does more damage than good.
At no point does the book come off as pretentious, unrealistic or overly fatalistic. It doesn’t try to inspire a Western reader’s pity or guilt about an underdeveloped African country. Instead, it shows the beliefs, strengths and differences of people from contrasted but equal cultures.