Frank Eloff, the novel’s narrator, is a white doctor working at a hospital in the former capital of one of South Africa’s now-defunct independent homelands (rural areas set aside by the apartheid government for black "separate development"). The hospital, in its deserted and decaying city, is understaffed and understocked, and there are hardly any patients. Those who do arrive usually need to be taken elsewhere if they need any significant treatment. The homeland’s former leader, the Brigadier, has returned as a criminal gang leader to loot the place, and a white former army commander, now in the employ of the present government, is trying to capture him.

Frank moved to this place when promised directorship of the hospital (and in flight after his wife left him for his best friend), but the previous director has not left yet, and Frank is in a kind of personal and professional bureaucratic limbo. He has a sexual relationship with a black woman who runs a roadside souvenir stall. It is not quite prostitution, not quite a love affair: she is married, speaks little English, and Frank regularly gives her money.

A new doctor, Laurence Waters, arrives. He is fresh from medical school, sent to the hospital in order to complete the rural community service year required by the government of all new physicians. He and Frank become roommates and begin an uneasy friendship. Laurence is an idealist, planning to make heroic changes, but he misunderstands the complex balance of tolerance, cynicism and patience that characterize survival at the hospital, and his well-intentioned efforts, such as trying to end theft from the hospital and to establish a clinic in a local tribal village, lead to disaster. The novel ends with Frank appointed hospital director at last, and things returning to their depressingly ineffective "normality."


The novel’s title is ambiguous: what does it mean to be a "good doctor" in the context of South Africa’s recent history? Laurence, with his humanitarian ambitions, certainly fits the standard image, but Galgut shows the damage that can be done by an idealistic but naive egoist. Frank’s disillusioned realism is no more effective than Laurence’s in terms of healing illness, but this generally disillusioned novel suggests that, for the foreseeable future, his grimly apathetic tolerance for the paradoxes of the new society may be the only viable strategy.

Galgut quietly points to current health care problems in South Africa. The hospital would clearly be unable to give adequate care to AIDS patients, for instance, but the stockroom, short on most essentials, has shelves and shelves of undistributed condoms. The two other doctors at the hospital are, like many in South Africa’s less popular areas, from Cuba. Medicine itself is haunted by ghosts from its past: in a powerful flashback, Frank remembers his military service, when he was required to treat a black prisoner being tortured by the security forces (and to estimate how much more torture the captive would be able to survive). This memory of his unwilling complicity with a rejected system is Frank’s moment of truth as a physician, a far cry from Laurence’s more conventional epiphany about healing.

Compare with J. M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace, annotated in this data base.


This novel was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize. First published in the U.K. in 2003.


Grove Press

Place Published

New York



Page Count