Wednesday, 3 August 2011

“The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee – A Review

The first sentence of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, makes you wonder for a moment if you are reading a detective novel or a crime thriller.

'In a damp fourteen-by-twenty foot laboratory in Boston on a December morning in 1947, a man named Sidney Farber waited impatiently for the arrival of a parcel from New York.'

No, Farber is not waiting for the delivery of a pistol fitted with a silencer. The parcel turns out hold a few vials of yellow crystalline chemical named aminopterin, shipped to Farber’s laboratory in the slim hope that it might halt the growth of leukemia in children. No wonder, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2011. Authored by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-born doctor based in the United States, The Emperor of All Maladies tells the story of cancer from the time of the ancient Egyptians and Persians till the present, a gripping tale which makes the reader want someone somewhere in this world to find a cure for this malady which has befuddled physicians since time immemorial.

Mukherjee writes well. Very well. What could have been a boring narrative of banal events is transformed by Mukherjee into a series of exciting events that hold the reader’s attention. There are numerous stories of cancer patients and doctors who fight the good fight against this so-far-unconquered disease, each of which is interesting on its own. If the prologue starts with Carla Reed, a thirty-year old Kindergarten teacher from Ipswich, a mother of three who woke up with a headache, the book ends with Germaine who was hit with a rare type of gastrointestinal cancer, made a brilliant recovery and then suffered a relapse. Mukherjee does not tell us if Carla or Germaine made it, just as he does not tell us when he expects a cure to be discovered.

Cancer is not something new or modern. Our ancients knew of it. Atossa the Persian queen suffered from what was most probably breast cancer and had a slave excise her tumour. No, don’t worry, when Mukherjee describes the excision, it sounds a lot better than when you read it here.

Mukherjee’s book is descriptive. When Mukherjee is not describing an experiment or a victim’s pain, he is still describing something else. For example, when telling us about the commencement of a set of trials in a Swedish town, Mukherjee tell us:

Perched almost on the southern tip of the Swedish peninsula, Malmö is a bland, gray-blue industrial town set amid a featureless gray-blue landscape. The bare sprawling flatlands of Skane stretch out to its north and the waters of the Øresund strait roll to the south. Battered by a steep recession in the mid-1970s, the region had economically and demographically frozen for nearly two decades. Migration into and out of the city had shrunk to an astonishingly low 2 percent for nearly twenty years. Malmö had been in limbo with a captive cohort of men and women. It was the ideal place to run a difficult trial.

The only flip side to this brilliant book which uses American spelling is that it is a bit too long. I mean, Mukherjee writes well and there isn’t a single anecdote which isn’t interesting, but after 300 pages, I realised that I still had 172 pages to go and almost buckled. I did carry on though and I am glad I did, but future readers should remember that they are signing up for a marathon when they start this book. A long and exciting marathon, which at times looks as if it will never end - just like the fight against cancer.


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I have to say that the title of this book is very eye-catchy and I think I will go purchase this book and read it on the holidays, thanks for the recommmendation

Harivansh Rai said...

This book is precisely what it states, it lugs you through an epic journey towards the discovery of cancer,it's varieties and its cure. It traces through the cancer landscape,its highs and lows,the battle,the petitions and the litigations in the era of War on Cancer in the nineteenth century. A parallel plot trudges the authors emotions and affiliation with some of his patients and his morbid experience as a medical intern at Massachusetts General.
Riveting read with handpicked and polished language,captivating and at the same time thought provoking, it's been my afternoon ritual with coffee lately.