Esther Press 1 February 2012 - 11:32am
Good people can do bad things, and the psychological motivations of those who commit evil acts are mysterious and complex.
In Do No Harm, Carol Topolski tackles this mystery by relaying a portrait of madness that avoids trite generalisations and renders the thin line between good and evil barely perceptible.
Virginia, a renowned surgeon and respected gynaecologist, is at the centre of the story - a protagonist as captivating for her psychopathic tendencies as for her empathy towards others. As the book progresses, the admiration of Virginia by her peers and the care she bestows upon her patients heighten the horror of her menacing hidden life.
The novel continually plays on these contrasts and subversions of expectations. Although it appears to be set in a regular British suburban environment, the dark secrets lurking beneath surface of the characters' lives are in stark contrast to the bright lights of the hospital corridors and the familiarity of family homes. The narrative itself is also interrupted, by flashbacks in the voice of Virginia’s childhood self; a lonely girl desperate for the love of parents who barely recognise she exists. The unresolved conflicts and secrets of her past encourage a sympathetic reaction to a character who should naturally repel the reader.
Topolski uses her experience as a psychoanalyst to enrich the novel with meticulous attention to detail. The characters are at once bizarre and so normal that they could easily inhabit your own neighbourhood. This realism adds to the building tension as events unfold.
Once you the secrets begin to unravel it is difficult to put the book down, as the simplest everyday occurrences become progressively significant. A series of unnerving cliff-hangers propel you through the novel towards a chilling end.