Everything is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic, by Roopa Farooki

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

I don’t know about you, but I can’t get enough of Covid-19 chronicles. My favourites of the twenty-some I’ve read thus far have come from the vanguard of the medical response (or, by contrast, have stayed far away from hospitals and celebrated the nature that was always on our doorsteps without us noticing it enough), including Intensive Care by Gavin Francis. Like Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke, Everything Is True has a tight focus on the early days of the pandemic and was written in evenings at home after serving on the frontline. But there are a lot of surprises in Roopa Farooki’s narrative that make it stand out from the pack.

Farooki is a published novelist who has written books for children and adults, and lectures on the Oxford University Master’s programme in creative writing. She’s also a mum of four. In her thirties she decided to retrain, and is now a junior doctor. Her literary pedigree is evident in her writing; in an author’s note at the end of the book she calls this closer to autofiction than to a memoir in that all details were fictionalized to protect confidentiality. 

Indeed, her storytelling choices owe more to literary fiction than to impassive reportage. The second-person, present-tense narration drops readers right into her position – overworked, with rotas and protocols changing every day, and underappreciated (all holiday taken away). It’s an emotional whirlwind: she’s rebuked for missing a repeat prescription, incensed about a heart attack patient whose condition would have been caught earlier were it not for Covid, and fed up with a partner who’s paranoid about the virus being brought back home. Here’s the situation:  

It seems inappropriate to complain. At least you’re not dead. At least you’re not bored.

You’re back on your shift, in six hours. It feels like you only just got home.

You walk into the hospital and hunt for scrubs. Then you stride to the ward, and find a computer to start the patient list ahead of the ward round, looking through the notes of those new patients who have joined you overnight. You won’t get to pee from when you start at 8.30 a.m., until after the ward round is done at 2 p.m.

You eat a sandwich with one hand while sorting out patient plans, scribbling notes and ordering tests.

You don’t sit down. On principle. You’re better on your feet.

The prose is often as straightforward as that, though the frequent line breaks and repetition almost give it the rhythm of performance poetry. Plus there is occasional wry humour, wordplay, slang and cursing. Farooki is cynical about things like the weekly NHS clap, and furious about the government incompetence making the situation worse. Much of her rage is directed at the prime minister. When a nurse at her own hospital dies, it really brings the crisis home for the first time. As the weeks pass, she is distressed to note that it’s mostly BAME staff dying. Before the book is over, she’ll have her own brush with Covid, too.

It seems like Farooki is invincible, though. Not only is she a superwoman balancing multiple careers and family life (even if “painfully aware of doing the bare minimum in everything”); she’s also had a previous meeting with death that somehow puts Covid into perspective. In February 2020, her sister Kiron died of breast cancer. During the first 40 days of the initial UK lockdown – the book’s limited timeframe – she continues to talk to Kiron, and imagines she can hear her sister’s chiding replies. Grief opens the door for magic realism, despite the title – which comes from a Balzac quote, anticipating readers’ objections to a tragic tale they might assume to be exaggerated or embellished. Farooki echoes Balzac in insisting that it’s all true here: the dark comedy and the fantastical longing, as well as the everyday pathos. 

A hybrid work that reads as fluidly as a novel while dramatizing real events, this is sure to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally pick up a bereavement or medical memoir. I’d especially recommend it to fans of Consumed by Arifa Akbar and How We Met by Huma Qureshi. It’s an intense literary take on recent history, and while I wished it had travelled through the publishing pipeline faster to feel more immediate, its anger and frustration at the ongoing pandemic remain as potent as they were nearly two years ago.

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Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer from Maryland, USA. She reviews memoirs for the Times Literary Supplement and blogs at Bookish Beck.

Roopa Farooki, Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic (Bloomsbury, 2022). 978-1526633392, 240 pp., hardback.

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