Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Good Doctor

A Novel

by Damon Galgut

“Like most elements of this slim, absorbing novel set in post-apartheid South Africa, the title is ambiguous. The narrator, Frank, is a doctor, but, to judge from our first impression, not a good one. . . . The novel shrewdly introduces thriller-like devices. . . . Galgut spins a brisk and bracing story, but he’s also in pursuit of something murkier: the double-edged nature of doing good in a land where “the past has only just happened.”” –The New Yorker

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 240
  • Publication Date October 20, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4169-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

A taut, intense tale of the dashed hopes of the post-apartheid era and the small betrayals that doom a friendship

A finalist for the Man Booker Prize, The Good Doctor is a taut, intense tale of the dashed hopes of the postapartheid era and the small betrayals that doom a friendship. It has been greeted with enthusiastic interest around the world and assures Damon Galgut’s place as a major international talent.

When Laurence Waters arrives at his new post at a deserted rural hospital, staff physician Frank Eloff is instantly suspicious. Laurence is young, optimistic, and full of big ideas–everything Frank, hardened and embittered by years of irrelevancy and disappointment in the “bush,” is not. Frank watches with a mixture of bemusement and irritation as Laurence sets about trying to bring the hospital and its diffident staff back to life.

The whole town is beset with new arrivals and the return of old faces. Frank reestablishes a secret romantic liaison with a local woman, one that will have unexpected consequences for him, for her, and even for Laurence. The Brigadier, an African who shaped himself into a local dictator during apartheid days, is rumored to be back in town, and active in cross-border smuggling. A group of soldiers has moved in to track him, and to close the borders, led by a man from Frank’s own dark past. Laurence sees only possibilities–but in a world where the past is demanding restitution from the present, his ill-starred idealism cannot last. When the final denouement comes, who will make the cynical choice, and who the moral one?

The Good Doctor is a sparkling, highly accomplished piece of fiction that casts an unsparing eye on the “new” South Africa and on the deceptions and self-deceptions that crawl under the surface of the human struggle to do what is right.

The novel has now been sold to highly prestigious houses in sixteen countries

Tags Literary


“Like most elements of this slim, absorbing novel set in post-apartheid South Africa, the title is ambiguous. The narrator, Frank, is a doctor, but, to judge from our first impression, not a good one. . . . The novel shrewdly introduces thriller-like devices. . . . Galgut spins a brisk and bracing story, but he’s also in pursuit of something murkier: the double-edged nature of doing good in a land where “the past has only just happened.”” –The New Yorker

“Galgut circles his story with hoops of irony and tragedy. . . . The moral dilemmas, some of the plotting and event the title The Good Doctor do more than suggest Graham Greene’s Vietnam parable, The Quiet American. . . . Apartheid is gone, but its starved afterbirth remains. It is in evoking this starvation. . . that the virtue of The Good Doctor lies.” –Richard Eder, The New York Times

‘danger is omnipresent in The Good Doctor, all the more potent for Galgut’s quiet, understated prose, for his judicious dispensing of key plot points, for his ability to make concrete Eloff’s fears. . . .

The Good Doctor is a short novel filled with tension.” –Bill Eichenberger, The Columbus Dispatch

“Exquisite. . . . It is a testament to Galgut’s skill that this mostly quiet novel can leave such a lasting sense of urgency. And shame. That, after all, is what great fiction is meant to do.” –John Freeman, The Denver Post

The Good Doctor is a depressing but vivid evocation of post-apartheid South Africa. . . . Galgut’s descriptions of the dry, dusty countryside are particularly evocative. . . . This is a provocative and cautionary tale of a good man trying to do good at the wrong time and in the wrong place.” –Judith Chettle, The Washington Times

“Exquisite. . . . It is a testament to Mr. Galgut’s skill that this mostly quiet novel can leave such a lasting sense of urgency.” –John Freeman, The Dallas Morning News

‘damon Galgut’s mesmerizing story probes deeply into what constitutes idealism. . . . The Good Doctor is a sobering study of the reality and the difficulty every decent man has in this post-9/11 world, where few of the old rules of decency and optimism appear to operate.” –Charles R.Larson, Worldview

“[Galgut] writes taut and compelling prose. The novel. . . feels freighted with mystery and moment, replete with significant incident.” –Claire Messud, The Nation

“Of the six novels shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize for fiction, easily the most subversive is Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor. . . . The novel spells out in fiction what no South African, black or white, would dare even whisper among friends: that South Africa run by Africans is going to hell in a handbasket. . . . The passing of apartheid robbed South Africa’s white novelists of a great artistic cause. Some, like Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Andr” Brink, are trying to reinvent themselves. Of the younger generation, Mr. Galgut, with his spare, unhurried sentences, his carefully chosen words, is the most talented–and the saddest.” –The Economist

“Were the book as simple as that–a guilty narrator recounting his complicated crime; an entertainment, as Greene referred to some of his books–it would still be a fine novel, sort of like James M. Cain writing South Africa. However, it is Galgut’s building of the tale upon rich and intricately intertwined subplots . . . that conveys the moral and political seriousness of the novel.” –Greg Bottoms, Bookforum

The Good Doctor comprises a taut, subtle allegory of friendship and the limits of redemption. . . . Galgut successfully articulates the discrepancies and tensions between abstract ideals and lived realities. . . . He ably creates a feeling of personal and social claustrophobia akin to [J.M.] Coetzee’s apartheid-era work. . . . [The Good Doctor] is an achievement that should help him occupy his own space in South Africa’s rich body of literature.” –Christopher J. Lee, Rain Taxi

“Galgut has crafted a story of mysterious depths, compelling, edgy, and abrasive. A parable of the new South Africa, it gives voice to the ancient struggle between good and evil, between ideals and dead lethargy.” –Tim Stafford, Books & Culture

“Explores postapartheid South Africa’s ambiguous present, where deep-rooted social and political tensions threaten any shared dream for the future. . . . Like Graham Greene’s work, this quiet, affecting novel will attract those haunted by the shadow of colonialism.” –Publishers Weekly

“Galgut presents a series of contrasts: youth and age, idealism and pessimism, integrity and degeneration, black and white–even life and death. . . . An intense work. . .in its evocative depictions of its characters’ inner lives and the uneasy human relations caused by apartheid.” –Amy Ford, Library Journal

“A moody and memorable parable of the corruption of the flesh and spirit. . . . Possesses the economy and pace of Hemingway and the lyrical grace of Graham Greene. . . . The author renders a quietly compelling examination of the chasms that exist in the new South Africa and the moral challenges that lie in apartheid’s wake.” –Allison Boyle, Booklist

“A truly remarkable novel, steeped in contemporary history, yet at the same time transcending it. I was enthralled by its intensity and the immediacy of every small twist and turn of the story.” –Andr” Brink, author of A Dry White Season

“If there is a posterity, The Good Doctor will be seen as one of the great literary triumphs of South Africa’s transition, a novel that is in every way the equal of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. Both works contemplate white men paralysed if not poisoned in apartheid’s aftermath by feelings of powerlessness and irrelevance, a condition neither seems to regard as curable. Students of the South African condition will be particularly impressed by Galgut’s narrator, a cynic who doesn’t care, can’t be bothered, expects the worst, evinces no emotion save peevish dissatisfaction and seems to be sliding into a state of social alienation so extreme as to border on living death; this is, for better or worse, the secret position of many white South Africans in 2003, here rendered almost perfectly by a novelist of great and growing power.” –Rian Malan, author of My Traitor’s Heart

“At a time when much so-called “literary” fiction has settled into fulfilling comfortable expectations The Good Doctor unsettles and confounds. There are traces of J. M. Coetzee and Graham Greene but Damon Galgut is a true original.” –Geoff Dyer, author of Out of Sheer Rage

“Galgut’s story of a doctor attempting to carve out his place in a run-down local hospital vibrates with an eerie sense of foreboding. . . . A gripping read, laced throughout with powerful emotional truth and Damon Galgut’s extraordinary vision.” –Julie Wheelwright, The Independent (UK)

“A taut exploration of the shifting landscape, cultural and moral, of the new South Africa. In recalling not only a book such as Coetzee’s Disgrace, but also with a strong whiff of Graham Greene about it.” –Erica Wagner, The Times (UK)

“Extremely good . . . for my money, Damon Galgut is the one to watch.” –Peter Kemp, Sunday Times (UK)

“Galgut seems the most likely of the crop of young South African novelists to fill J.M. Coetzee’s shoes.” –The Guardian (UK)

“Galgut, one of South Africa’s best novelists. . . . In The Good Doctor Galgut’s prose is beautifully understated, and it often reaches a level of thrillerish tension. . . . If, as seems the case, the British publishing institution has a limited number of slots for South African writers at any given time, and the Booker is anything to go by, Galgut is moving into the Coetzee slot. Galgut’s standing in the small South African literary community is high and likely to receive a further boost with this shortlisting.” –Shaun de Waal, The Guardian (UK)

“Galgut ” writes with a razor-sharp precision that recalls J.M. Coetzee.” –Anderson Tepper, Vanity Fair


Shortlisted for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the region of Africa



The first time I saw him I thought, he won’t last.

I was sitting in the office in the late afternoon and he appeared suddenly in the doorway, carrying a suitcase in one hand and wearing plain clothes – jeans and a brown shirt – with his white coat on top. He looked young and lost and a bit bewildered, but that wasn’t why I thought what I did. It was because of something else, something I could see in his face.

He said, “Hello…? Is this the hospital?”

His voice was unexpectedly deep for somebody so tall and thin.

“Come in,” I said. “Put down your bag.”

He came in, but he didn’t put down the bag. He held it close while he looked around at the pink walls, the empty chairs, the dusty desk in the corner, the frail plants wilting in their pots. I could see that he thought there’d been some kind of mistake.

I felt sorry for him.

“I’m Frank Eloff,” I said.

“I’m Laurence Waters.

“I know.”

“You know…?”

He seemed amazed that we should be expecting him, though he’d been sending faxes for days already, announcing his arrival.

“We’re sharing a room,” I told him. “Let me take you over.”

The room was in a separate wing. We had to cross an open space of ground, close to the parking lot. When he came in he must have walked this way, but now he looked at the path through the long grass, the ragged trees overhead dropping their burden of leaves, as if he’d never seen them before.

We went down the long passage to the room. I’d lived and slept alone in here until today. Two beds, a cupboard, a small carpet, a print on one wall, a mirror, a green sofa, a low coffee table made of synthetic wood, a lamp. It was all basic standard issue. The few occupied rooms all looked the same, as in some featureless bleak hotel. The only trace of individuality was in the configuration of the furniture, but I’d never bothered to shift mine around till two days ago, when an extra bed had been brought in. I also hadn’t added anything. There was no personality in the ugly, austere furniture; against this neutral backdrop, even a piece of cloth would have been revealing.

“You can take that bed,” I said. “There’s space in the cupboard. The bathroom’s through that door.”

“Oh. Yes. Okay.” But he still didn’t put down his bag.

I’d only heard two weeks before that I would have to share a room. Dr Ngema had called me in. I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t refuse. And in the days that followed I came around, in spite of myself, to the idea of sharing. It might not be so bad. We might get on well, it might be good to have company, my life here could be pleasantly different. So in a way I started looking forward with curiosity to this change. And before he arrived I did a few things to make him welcome. I put the new bed under the window and made it up with fresh linen. I cleared a few shelves in the cupboard. I swept and cleaned, which is something I don’t do very often.

But now that he was standing here I could see, through his eyes, how invisible that effort was. The room was ugly and bare. And Laurence Waters didn’t look to me like the person I’d pictured in my head. I don’t know what I’d imagined, but it wasn’t this bland, biscuit-coloured young man, almost a boy still, who was at last putting his suitcase down.

He took his glasses off and rubbed them on his sleeve. He put them on again and said wearily, “I don’t understand.”


“This whole place.”

“The hospital?”

“Not just the hospital. I mean…” He waved a hand to indicate the world out there. He meant the town outside the hospital walls.

“You asked to come here.”

“But I didn’t know that it would be like this. Why?” he said with sudden intensity. “I don’t understand.”

“We can talk about it later. But I’m on duty now, I have to go back to the office.”

“I must see Dr Ngema,” he said abruptly. ‘she’s expecting me.”

‘don’t worry about that now. You can do it in the morning. No hurry.”

“What should I do now?”

“Whatever you like. Unpack, settle in. Or come and sit with me. I’ll be finished in a couple of hours.”

I left him alone and went back. He was shocked and depressed. I understood that; I’d felt it myself when I first arrived. You came expecting one thing and were met by something else completely.

You came expecting a busy modern hospital – rural maybe, and small, but full of activity – in a town where things were happening. This was the capital of what used to be one of the homelands, so whatever the morality of the politics that gave rise to it, you expected a place full of administration and movement, people coming and going. And when you’d turned off the main route to the border and were coming in on the one minor road that led here, it might still look – when you saw the place from a distance – like what you’d expected. There was the main street, leading to the centre where the fountain and the statue stood, the shop-fronts and pavements and streetlights, and all the buildings beyond. It looked neat and calibrated and exact. Not a bad place to be.

And then you arrived and you saw. Maybe the first clue was a disturbing detail; a crack that ran through an otherwise pristine wall, or a set of broken windows in an office you passed. Or the fact that the fountain was dry and full of old sand at the bottom. And you slowed down, looking around you with vague anxiety, and suddenly it all came into clear focus. The weeds in the joints of the pavements and bricks, the grass growing at places in the street, the fused lamps and the empty shops behind their blank glass fronts and the mildew and damp and blistered paint and the marks of rain on every surface and the slow tumbling down of solid structures, sometimes grain by grain, sometimes in pieces. And you were not sure any more of where you were.

And there were no people. That was the last thing you noticed, though you realized then that it was the first thing to give you that uneasy hollow feeling: the place was deserted. There was, yes, a car cruising slowly down a back road, an official uniform or two ambling along a pavement, and maybe a figure slouching on a footpath through an overgrown plot of land, but mostly the space was empty. Uninhabited. No human chaos, no movement.

A ghost town.

“It’s like something terrible happened here,” Laurence said. “That’s how it feels.”

“Ja, but the opposite is true. Nothing has ever happened here. Nothing ever will. That’s the problem.”

“But then how…?”

“How what?”

“Nothing. Just how.”

He meant, how did it come to be here at all? And that was the real question. This was not a town that had sprung up naturally for the normal human reasons – a river in a dry area, say, or a discovery of gold, some kind of historical event. It was a town that had been conceived and planned on paper, by evil bureaucrats in a city far away, who had probably never even been here. Here is our homeland, they said, tracing an outline on a map, now where should its capital be? Why not here, in the middle? They made an “X” with a red pen and all felt very satisfied with themselves, then sent for the state architects to draw up plans.

So the bewilderment that Laurence Waters felt wasn’t unusual. I’d been through it myself. And so I knew that the feeling would pass. In a week or two the bewilderment would give way to something else: frustration maybe, or resentment, anger. And then that would turn into resignation. And after

a couple of months Laurence would be suffering through his sentence here, like the rest of us, or else plotting a way to get out.

“But where are they all?” he said, talking more to the ceiling than to me.


“The people.”

“Out there,” I said. “Where they live.”

This was hours later in my room – our room – that night. I had just put out the light and was lying there, trying to sleep, when his voice came out of the dark.

“But why do they live out there? Why aren’t they here?”

“What’s there for them here?” I said.

“Everything. I saw the countryside when I was driving. There’s nothing out there. No hotels, shops, restaurants, cinemas… Nothing.”

“They don’t need all that.”

“What about the hospital? Don’t they need that?”

I sat up on one elbow. He was smoking a cigarette and I could see the red glow rising and falling. He was on his back, looking up.

“Laurence,” I said. “Understand one thing. This isn’t a real hospital. It’s a joke. When you were driving here, do you remember the last town you passed, an hour back? That’s where the real hospital is. That’s where people go when they’re sick. They don’t come here. There’s nothing here. You’re in the wrong place.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“You’d better believe it.”

The red coal hung still for a moment, then rose and fell, rose and fell. “But people get injured, people get sick. Don’t they need help?”

“What do you think this place means to them? It’s where the army came from. It’s where their puppet dictator lived. They hate this place.”

“You mean politics,” he said. “But that’s all past now. It doesn’t matter any more.”

“The past has only just happened. It’s not past yet.”

“I don’t care about that. I’m a doctor.”

I lay and watched him for a while. After a few minutes he stubbed out the cigarette on the windowsill and threw the butt out of the window. Then he said one or two words I couldn’t hear, made a gesture with his hands and sighed and went to sleep. It was almost instantaneous. He went limp and I could hear the regular sound of his breathing.

But I couldn’t sleep. It had been years and years since I’d had to spend a night in the same room with anybody else. And I remembered then – almost incongruously, because he was nothing to me – how there had been a time, long before, when the idea of having somebody sleeping close to me in the dark was a consolation and comfort. I couldn’t think of anything better. And now this other breathing body made me tense and watchful and somehow angry, so that it took hours before I was tired enough to close my eyes.

Copyright ” 2003 by Damon Galgut. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.