February 9, 2012

The Physician by Noah Gordon

Noah Gordon's historical novel The Physician tells the story of Rob, a young boy in medieval England who discovers that he has the ability to sense when a person is close to death.  Apprenticed to a barber-surgeon at a young age, Rob's fascination with medicine grows as he travels the country, curing and performing.  His passion for healing eventually leads him to a famous medical school in Persia, where he must disguise himself as a Jew in order to attend.

The Physician is a long book, spanning more than a decade of Rob's life, and there are naturally several points in its 700 pages that drag.  Though the back-cover summary (and the one I gave above) provides Rob's attendance of the Persian medical school as the main event of the novel, it takes over 300 pages for Rob to reach its home city of Ispahan.  Of course, those 300 pages are scattered with many smaller conflicts and setbacks, not to mention a wealth of historical information about the eleventh century.  Though there were several parts in which the pace seemed too meandering, it was the historical detail that truly made the story breathe.

For instance, have you ever wondered about the medieval word for tumor?  It's the decidedly un-serious-sounding bubo.  Or have you always wanted to read about the precise ceremony that accompanies the slaughtering of a kosher ox?  Look no further!  The Physician will also give you valuable insight into the art of juggling and how to curry favor with a Persian king (hint: it involves board games).

While reading The Physician, I couldn't help but be reminded of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon.  Both are historical novels with medicinally- and supernaturally-gifted main characters.  Of course, Outlander's protagonist can time travel, which I think will always trump Rob's Death Sense.  I would recommend The Physician to fans of Outlander, though I would warn them that Gabaldon's greatest strength as a writer--creating main characters that the reader truly comes to love--is largely absent in The Physician.  Noah Gordon's characters are not at all flat, but they somehow lack that essential spark that makes a reader yearn to read sequel after sequel.

Several of the minor characters were both fascinating and endearing, but I found Rob to be a decidedly lackluster protagonist.  He has fits of hypocrisy and sometimes acts like a show-off, even in situations where it would be wise to keep quiet.  Though I know the portrayals of gender norms in the book are probably quite accurate to the Middle Ages, it was still disquieting to read passages like this, in which Rob and his wife play a Persian version of chess:
He didn't expect much, for it was a warrior's game and she was but a woman.  But she learned quickly and would capture one of his pieces with a whoop and battle cry that would have been credible in a Seljuk marauder (566).  
Even knowing that sexist attitudes were the norm in the eleventh century, an observation like this will not necessarily warm the reader toward a protagonist, who is supposed to be at least likeable enough to get said reader to continue on for several hundred more pages.

Aside from a few flaws, I found The Physician to be an engrossing, informative read.  Definitely recommended, especially if you want to learn about the history of medicine and religious conflict in the Middle Ages.  Four out of five stars.

The Physician © Noah Gordon and Sphere/Little Brown Books, 1986.  695 pages.


  1. I would SO much rather have a brain bubo than a brain tumor. In fact, if I'm ever diagnosed with a tumor of any kind, I'm definitely calling it a bubo. It sounds like a character from a wacky children's show.

    I just don't know if I can read something that's similar to Outlander but has no Scotsmen in it. I require kilts in my historical fiction!

    1. If it helps, the characters in The Physician do go to Scotland at one point! Although sadly there is no mention of kilts...

  2. I like that you went over his character flaws (cockiness, sexism) and related it to his way of thinking during that time period. The premise sounds interesting - but 700 pages, oi vay!

    1. Sometimes it did feel a little long, but I think the length lent itself well in illustrating the slowness of travel in the Middle Ages. A big chunk of the novel has Rob traveling from England to Persia; I don't think it would have seemed so realistic if it only took ten pages!


Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment!