The Registrar (Allen and Unwin 2022) is a fictional but very real account of the drama of work/life balance for a medical professional in training. Authored by Neela Janakiramanan, a reconstructive plastic surgeon with special expertise in complex hand and wrist surgery, this story might be imagined but it is very much supported by the skeletal bones of real-life experience. Janakiramanan is a public advocate for health and gender equity, diversity and inclusion, and her own medical training has obviously informed this novel by providing rich and fertile ground on all of the above subjects.

The non-fiction book Emotional Female by Yumiko Kadota shares common ground with much of The Registrar, both highlighting the extreme physical and mental toll exacted upon our health professionals while in training, and the high emotional cost of maintaining their medical expertise and combining that (somehow) with a social and family life. Although this is a work of fiction, The Registrar contains much emotional truth.

The central figure is Emma Swann, about to begin a gruelling year as a surgical registrar at a prestigious teaching hospital where her older brother Andy is also practicing, and where the name of their famous father remains eminent. The pressures of living up to family expectations, hospital administrative bureaucracy, 20-hour days, life and death decisions, and the emotional fallout from patients is combined with misogyny, bullying, humiliation and the constant fear of failure or of making a mistake with catastrophic consequences.

This book has the page-turning pace of a thriller while also highlighting the skill, compassion and empathy needed to remain part of this frenetic system. While it contains necessary medical jargon and procedural information, it is first and foremost a compelling story about people – the patients and the doctors and nurses who treat them. It navigates distressing content, about both physical and mental illness, and should be read accordingly.

One thread of this story is particularly close to home for me, and when I heard the author read from her work at a Melbourne author evening, it did make me cry. That said, she traversed that particular subject with as much thoughtfulness, tenderness and honesty as possible, and I could see the situation from the point of both patient and doctor with objectivity and warmth. This is compassion built from experience.