Plague and Cholera by Patrick Deville

I like my novels to drop me straight into events and Patrick Deville’s Plague and Cholera does just that. The reader joins Dr Alexandre Yersin in Paris, May 1940, as he is fleeing France during World War II. Moments later a second narrative is introduced, taking the reader through Yersin’s early life: from his medical studies to his induction and time spent at the Pasteur Institute and his yearning for travel and adventure.

In this fictionalised memoir of the Swiss-born scientist and polymath, the two narratives cleverly present the different stages of Yersin’s life. As a young man he could well be seen as fickle, unable to stay put in any one career or locale. The young Yersin is eager to learn and explore the unchartered; he is bored stuck in a laboratory doing research and gains employment as a ship’s doctor, widening his thirst for exploration. As an old man leaving war-torn Europe for the sanctuary of his second home in Indochine, he reflects on the life he has made, fondly recalling friends and colleagues, now long passed, and wonders with what luck he is still here.

Deville’s prose is comfortable – almost conversational – and is vividly engaging. I struggled to put the book down, torn between racing through it like a young Yersin eager for his next great discovery or adventure, or reading at a slower pace akin to Yersin in his seventies. I chose slow and steady to best enjoy every moment of this epic adventure. Yersin is most often remembered as the discoverer of the bacillus bacteria responsible for the bubonic plague – but his life work and experience was far wider than just this. With an enthralling blend of fact and fiction, Deville’s Plague and Cholera brilliantly highlights this wonderful man. A great read.

Suzanne Steinbruckner