The award-winning writer and Edinburgh GP combines patient case studies with cultural history in this profound study of how humans change
“My aim is to sing of the ways bodies change.” Ovid, in The Metamorphoses, provides one of six epigraphs to Gavin Francis’s ambitious book on the same theme. Among the other authors Francis quotes at the outset are Hume, Thoreau and Marina Warner, who writes: “Metamorphosis governs natural phenomena.” He might also have invoked John Berger’s 1967 study of the work and life of a country doctor, A Fortunate Man. Writing about that book a few years ago, Francis noted that a sensitive physician “is rewarded with endless opportunities for experiencing the possibilities inherent in human lives”. Shapeshifters is an effort to inventory some of that potential, both glad and malign. It’s a book that bristles with insight into human bodies and the ways they remake themselves, or undo their owners.
Change may seem a broad category inside which to corral the infinitely detailed ways our bodies work, don’t work, develop and decline. But feeling, or appearing to be in some way altered is surely the fundamental experience of being embodied. There is no static corporeal condition in life, or in death. (As John Donne puts it in his Devotions: “Variable, and therefore miserable condition of man! This minute I was well, and am ill, this minute.”) Francis, who works as a GP in Edinburgh, is interested in physical changes wrought by time, illness and accident – hormonal slumps and rages, anorexia’s chilling progression, the fantastical inventions of a florid psychosis – but also in the bodily metaphors that have “preoccupied poets, artists and thinkers for millennia”. While his literary reference points are mostly classical, he includes Borges on memory, Ursula K Le Guin on menopause and the essayist Anatole Broyard on the black comedy of his prostate cancer. In a consideration of the ambiguities of human gender, Francis turns to TS Eliot’s version of Tiresias, “throbbing between two lives”.