The Family Doctor by Debra Oswald

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Few can be unaware of the debates and proposals raging currently concerning the scourge of domestic violence that ravages our society. It is widespread and occurs in all strata of the community.

Toxic masculinity is, sadly, a commonly used phrase and is a serious factor involved in the attacks on women.

The problem is very dramatically spotlighted in Debra Oswald’s book, The Family Doctor.

I could not put this down until the final page. In the preceding chapters, many questions are posed. Some are answered and, at the same time, new queries arise….

Paula is successful, much admired and liked, and practising as a doctor in a small medical centre in Sydney.  She becomes aware of a patient who is abused by her husband and both she and her little boy live in constant terror of his actions.  The husband comes to the surgery and, as Paula interacts with him, is sorely tempted to take steps to liberate his wife and child. His heart condition eases her onto a murderous path.

This is an appalling step for a doctor to take. Their oath is ‘to do no harm’, and always work to sustain and, if possible, save lives.  Paula, her mind swirling with arguments, decides that it is more important to improve, and possibly save, the lives of wife and child than to resist the impulse to murder the violent and constantly abusing husband.

Conflict and guilt overwhelm her and she suffers a form of punishment in worrying whether she will be exposed and should she confide in her dear friend, Anita.

Earlier on, Paula’s decision-making is drastically reduced by a traumatic witnessing of the brutal killing of her close friend Stacey and her two children by her violent, controlling husband, Matt. She knew that DVOs, even a jail sentence, had failed to halt his menacing treatment of his family.  This knowledge and experience are key in Paula’s decision to murder her patient, Ian Ferguson.

The pace and power of the narrative accelerates when, having rid the world of one violent man, she encounters another opportunity to act. This time, the man, a well-known villain and drug dealer, was able to evade a jail sentence by engaging a brilliant, expensive lawyer. Although he had murdered his former partner, he was free. Paula feared for the welfare of his current pregnant partner.

Obsessed with the determination to see this predatory male justly dealt with, she sets about entrapping him.

Meanwhile, Anita realises that, in slips in their conversation, Paula had crossed the line between right and wrong. Their much-valued friendship is threatened.

Practising as a medic in the city was no longer practicable, so she becomes a locum in the country. Paula by now is more unstable, more desperate.  She encounters another tragic situation.  Restraint abandoned, Paula steps in but the situation escalates out of her control. There is assault and a gun is fired.

Following this dramatic action, the book concludes with Paula having to serve a jail term.  While incarcerated, she improves the lives of some of the inmates – so it becomes a form of redemption for her.

The Family Doctor portrays domestic violence in different circumstances but the common factor here is that of a violent controlling man lacking respect for others especially women. It is evidently widespread and afflicts rich and poor.

The strongest message in the book is that criminal action is the only means to solve the problem. Even a good person can be driven to this extreme.

Nevertheless, this is a very important book.  Raising awareness is vital in stressing the urgent need to address this critical situation affecting so many.

All is not dark and depressing. Anita, an important character, who acts as a virtual conscience, and contrasting voice of sanity, meets a detective involved in homicide and court work. Rohan is a fine example of a near-ideal man. Their romance develops and ends happily.

Debra Oswald, an experienced writer, has tackled a difficult subject brilliantly. She disguises the problem of domestic violence as a gripping thriller. In the process, her book exposes a hopelessly flawed and ineffectual system in an intelligent and powerful way.

It succeeds on more than one level.  The protest against the inadequacy of society to protect the vulnerable is foremost.  There is the demonstration of the effect of trauma and its ability to unbalance and warp judgment. Friendship between women is prized and the benefits and joy of new found love.

Congratulations to the author. Hopefully her book will be read and absorbed not just by many women, but, more significantly, every man who craves a better, fairer and safe society.

The Family Doctor


By Debra Oswald

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 1760 87778 1

$32.99; 360pp

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