There are many kinds of desperation on display in Vikram Paralkar’s affecting novel, Night Theater. The first desperate man we meet is a disgraced former-big city surgeon. He is desperate to be able to do his job in a poor, rural Indian village. Then there’s the frantic pharmacist and her husband. And then there are all the women who show up with their children for polio vaccines that haven’t yet arrived. But the most desperate people of all don’t arrive until after dark. When they do, the surgeon is faced with an impossible but irresistible job: to bring the dead back to life.
I loved the surgeon from his first appearance. This gruff surgeon is constantly angry at conditions in the Indian village where he now works. There’s not enough money for supplies. He can’t hire anyone except a pharmacist (who actually never qualified as pharmacist, actually) and pay for the faux pharmacist’s husband to run errands. His immediate superior will get supplies in, but only for a price. This is on top of the cockroaches that infest the clinic. I was sold on the surgeon when he interrupts a surgery to beat a roach to death with his shoe.
The real action, however, begins after the all the children have gotten their vaccine and the sun goes down. A man, his wife, and child show up and ask for help, even though the clinic is closed. The surgeon and the pharmacist try to get them to come back in the morning. Then, the family reveals their wounds. All three have fatal wounds. They shouldn’t be standing, let alone standing and arguing with the surgeon. If the surgeon can repair the damage, they tell him, they will return to life as soon as the sun comes back up.
When desperation encounters a choice, thoughts of consequences go out the window. It’s only when facts start to be revealed about the surgeon’s past and the extraordinary deal the dead family have that we start to see what these characters should have thought about before they made their choice. Did the surgeon really have to burn bridges? What’s the real price of resurrection? What strings are attached to any apparently good deal? What the surgeon and the undead father failed to realize is that there are always strings attached.
Night Theater went by in a blur. I was hooked from the first smack of a shoe on a bug and I just had to know what happened next. I wasn’t expecting the emotional and philosophical layers that Paralkar added into the surgeon’s story. These layers grounded the horrific and fantastical elements of the story. I have a lot to think about now that the sun has come up, the consequences are laid bare, and these characters have to discover a way to live (or not) with what they’ve done.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.