Book Review: Going Under by Sonia Henry

Going Under…

About the Book:

A darkly funny and sexy novel that blows the lid off the medical profession and life inside a hospital by a young doctor whose anonymous article about the pressures of trainee doctors went viral around the world.

Dr Katarina ‘Kitty’ Holliday thought once she finished medical school and found gainful employment at one of Sydney’s best teaching hospitals that her dream was just beginning. The hard years, she thought, were finally over.

But Kitty is in for a rude shock. Between trying to survive on the ward, in the operating theatre and in the emergency department without killing any of her patients or going under herself, Kitty finds herself facing situations that rock her very understanding of the vocation to which she intends to devote her life.

Going Under is a rare insight into the world of a trainee female medic that takes an unflinching look at the reality of being a doctor. It explores the big themes – life, death, power and love – through the eyes of Dr Holliday as she loses her identity and nearly her mind in the pressure-cooker world of the hospital. But it is also there that Kitty might find her own redemption and finally know herself for the first time. Darkly funny, sexy, moving and shocking, Going Under will grip you from the opening page and never let you go.

My Thoughts:

‘I think that the most important quality for a doctor to possess is kindness. Without kindness, I think, we’re all lost in this maze of impossible perfection and constant self-punishment. Without kindness, we’re doctors devoid of humanity. And without our humanity, we don’t really have anything.’

Going Under is a devastatingly important novel. The story is told with a sharp edge of dark humour that is precariously balanced with frank and shocking honesty. I could barely put the book down, it’s such compelling reading. The novel is narrated by Dr Katarina Holliday, aka Kitty, and we journey with her throughout her entire first year as a junior doctor in a Sydney teaching hospital. I’ve always been partial to a good medical drama but don’t go into this thinking that it’s Grey’s Anatomy or Chicago Med. It’s actually real life. Going Under was written by an Australian doctor who currently lives and works in Sydney. This novel follows on from an article the author wrote anonymously in 2017, which was published on Kevin MD, a leading American physician blog. Titled, ‘There is something rotten inside the medical profession’, I encourage you all to read it. And then read this novel.

‘There is something wrong when young people with a qualification as difficult as a medical degree, who have the skills and intellect to contribute to society in an enormously meaningful way, are pushed into a mental space where they think their only option is to take their own life.’ – Author note.

We’ve all had bad experiences with doctors. When you live remotely like I do, I’ve often had occasion to despair over a misdiagnosis, and I’ve had plenty to say about the revolving door at my local GP clinic at which you can count yourself lucky if you see the same doctor more than once – or maybe unlucky, depends which doctor it is! Don’t get me started on our local hospital. But I’ve also had some really great experiences with doctors too. In the town I lived in for twenty years before I moved way out west, I had two rather excellent GPs. They are both dead now. In a terrible coincidence, each died of a heart attack before the age of fifty. I started as a patient of one of them, and then after he died, the second one took over the clinic and since I immediately liked him, I stayed at the clinic instead of looking elsewhere. The second one died not long after I moved away. I was particularly saddened by the loss of my second GP because he’d been my doctor for much longer and he was also my obstetrician through three pregnancies and my children’s paediatrician. I always thought it was rather astonishing that both died so young. Now, after reading Going Under, and considering the character of the lovely Dr Prince, I am less convinced about fateful coincidence.

‘I wonder if he realises the impact he has on me, quite apart from our mutual attraction. Any senior consultant who shows an interest in the wellbeing of their struggling juniors and is kind to them can make an enormous difference.’

There are some utterly despicable characters within this novel, just as there are some truly great ones. Some of the great ones make some really questionable decisions that have a negative cyclical impact on their physical and mental well being, but they’re young and under enormous pressure, so it all rings very true to me. The abuse of power that plays out within this story was at times distressing to read, because it’s so authentically portrayed, and given that it’s written by a doctor who is a clear advocate for improving the treatment of junior doctors, it hits with force. As it’s meant to. I think this is a novel that has been intelligently written, managing to successfully straddle that line between fictional entertainment and honest disclosure. Going Under is a novel that has wide appeal and I recommend it highly to readers of all tastes and genres. As a high school career advisor, it’s honestly made me a little uncomfortable about guiding students into medicine. I almost feel now as though helping a student get into medical school is akin to plunging them into a Hunger Games arena. If awareness plays any part in affecting change, then do your bit and read this novel. And then start talking about it.

‘Personally, I don’t think being a senior surgeon should excuse someone for being a total maniac, but that’s how medicine works. I also don’t understand how being an arsehole will increase your surgical dexterity, but maybe I just haven’t had enough experience yet.’


Thanks is extended to Allen & Unwin for providing me with a copy of Going Under for review.

About the Author:

Sonia Henry is in her early thirties and lives and works in Sydney as a doctor. When she’s not being a medic she devotes her spare time to writing and has been published in Kevin MD (America’s leading physician blog), the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Medical Students Journal, and has scientific publications in the ANZ Journal of Surgery.
Her most widely read article was an anonymous piece, ‘There is something rotten inside the medical profession’, which detailed the stress of medical training and was shared more than 22,000 times and re-published widely around the world. This article led to the start of a conversation that her novel Going Under seeks to continue. Dr Brad Frankum, head of the AMA NSW, penned an open letter in response to her piece, as did many other doctors who decided that it was time to speak out.
In her spare time, Sonia loves drinking wine with her friends, eating good food, and trying to save money to travel to new and fabulous places. She is a keen skier in the winter and likes Sydney for its beaches in the summer. She tried to join a gym but isn’t a morning person so has replaced exercise with an extra hour of sleep.
She is passionate about the topics covered in her book and would love to be an advocate for change in the medical system.

Going Under
Published by Allen & Unwin
Released September 2019

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Going Under by Sonia Henry

  1. This book sounds like a wonderful insight into the world of clinical medicine. Thanks Theresa for another considered and reflective review.

    I have often mulled on the fact that despite going through some rough times in my life, same as everyone does, the time I remember feeling the absolute worst, the most helpless and hopeless, was being a young doctor (2nd year out of med school) doing a rural placement where I was the only doctor in a very isolated town. Trying to run the GP clinic and the hospital – trying to manage emergencies and very ill patients and not lose my mind – was literally the hardest thing I have ever done. And I was only rotating through country towns for a couple of months.

    Being a doctor is not for the faint-hearted. There are so many wonderful aspects – getting to know patients, making difficult diagnoses, helping heal or keeping people well. But the underside that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough is that it is always stressful on some level. People’s lives are at stake and that is always at the forefront of your mind.

    I’d better read this book, hey? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you should read it! It might take you back to crazier times though. There is a rural term in this book too which turned out to be the most difficult for each of them. I guess in a way that makes sense. You’re already isolated within your position to a certain extent as the doctors, and as you point out, the buck stops with you. But then to be also in an isolated location, with no one higher available for opinion or assistance – I can’t even begin to imagine that sort of pressure.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll definitely have to put this on my tbr list. I read another good review on this book, but it didn’t make me interested in reading it like yours has.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ooooooh! I think this subject is really taking hold. I just got done reading The Gap, a memoir (I know you hate them hahaha, but bear with me) about the experience of paramedics, equivalent in a lot of ways to that of medical students, with many experiencing PTSD, among other mental illnesses, and taking their own lives. I’m so glad this topic is getting some oxygen; there is so much that can be done to fix the problem(s), but first it needs to be brought out of the shadows.

    Liked by 1 person

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