REVIEW: Tiny Uncertain Miracles by Michelle Johnston

In brief: Marick is in an awkward place with respect to faith and the loss of his family when he is sent to be the sole chaplain at a large tertiary hospital. Things get even stranger in this labyrinth when he makes a friend who is growing bacteria with gold in the basement that generates strong feelings in the lead up to a sticky Christmas.

The good: Beautiful style of writing, so vivid! The ending was just right.

The not-so-good: If you have worked at a particular hospital which is definitely not this fictional hospital, you might have a few flashbacks (especially basement ones).

Why I chose it: Sounded fascinating, and I love a good West Australian story. Many thanks to Harper Collins for the copy.

Year: 2022

Pages: 327

Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins)

Setting: An Australian city in the leadup to Christmas

Rating: 10 out of 10

Tiny Uncertain Miracles is a miracle sitting right on the shelf of your local bookshop. It combines faith, science, relationships, loss and meaning in a gleaming package that is never dull. It’s wry, witty, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful. I was surprised at the impact it had on me, from memories of a place in my past to my own family. It’s simply a novel you must read if you enjoy the beauty of detailed scenes and exquisite rendering of characters.

The main character is Marick, a chaplain who is basically forced from his role in a large church in the city into taking a job at a large (both physically and in terms of bed numbers) city hospital. He’s the only chaplain to cover all faiths due to budget cuts. His role isn’t really defined, but he’s told almost immediately that he must meet his KPIs which seem to be collecting patient stickers as ‘proof’ of his attendance. (Sadly, Marick doesn’t seem to have been taught the rule of stickers – the closer the sticker is to your nose, the more important it is). It’s an odd introduction as Marick is added to the medical emergency team to offer comfort (to who? When?) as well as assisting families and patients in their hour of need. Marick walks the corridors of the hospital and its joins between buildings (think deserted underground tunnels and corridors that are piled with equipment) and discovers Hugo, just at his moment of triumph. In a laundry converted to a lab in a basement, Hugo has some special bacteria (E.coli to be particular). They just happen to be growing gold. A friendship starts between Marick and Hugo and his wife Vivian. In the meantime, Hugo makes friends with Dolly, the matriarch of the volunteer shop (WHICH DOES NOT SELL CHOCOLATE due to regulations, but instead tuna and crackers. If you’ve ever been incredibly hungry in a hospital at 3am, these still do not tempt you. In fact, the paint looks more appetising). He also meets an emergency department physician who keeps appearing in the most unexpected of places, seeking her own solace. Meanwhile, the city’s humidity builds and rumours of the golden bacteria grow, culminating in a Christmas standoff outside the hospital. Just as everything seems to go wrong for Marick, Hugo and Dolly, there is a glimmer of hope on the other side…

All the characters in Tiny Uncertain Miracles are memorable and finely drawn. Marick’s back story is told gradually and was rather unexpected (just shows that jumping to conclusions is wrong). He’s initially a bit of a lost figure, but grows as he finds his new life, friends and hope. Hugo is a funny one. He’s complex, prone to big emotion and a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to ethics and fidelity (as is Vivian, his wife, but she’s a lot bolder in her jabs). Dolly is just adorable. I’m sure that she secretly runs the hospital the way she wants it and her own Christmas epiphany, although misguided, made a lot of sense from the heart (and the electrolyte disturbances). The hospital is also a character here. A myriad of add ons, basements and secret (or forgotten sections) it has a life of its own beyond the workers. It’s really only Marick and the ED physician who see this (the staff don’t really seem to have the time). If you know or have worked at a certain hospital in the centre of a capital city in the West, you will recognise some similarities. As second generation staff, I certainly did and it brought back a lot of memories. The basement clinics, the library archives and lost offices and rooms. Getting lost. The secret offices and the rooms that look not have been touched since 1969. Opening up a door to a secret courtyard or equipment graveyard. The tunnels (very, very creepy). The basement reminded me of my Grandma as did the Croatian cleaner, Lilyana and some of her history. It was a wild ride and testament of the power of Michelle’s words to bring that building to life.

Overall, Tiny Uncertain Miracles combines faith and science and friendship and love in a way that is alchemy. It’s a wonderful novel full of emotion and beauty.

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