The man in the street may not be all that wised-up scientifically, but even he knows what monoclonal antibodies are, after our experience of COVID and the, thank God, life-saving role they played when Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani got sick. For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, “Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful antigens such as viruses”, says Mr Google. And it’s a monoclonal antibody (mAb) that’s the star of this interesting novel, based on a real-life drug trial in which the subjects amost died.
Dung Tran, known as David Tran these days, is a Vietnamese refugee to Australia who has grown up to be a brilliant young doctor and medical researcher. He’s developed an mAb that’s being hyped to the skies by the venture capitalists who’ve invested in it, in particular the unscrupulous ignoramus Charlie Cunningham. Friends are surprised that David has associated himself with Charlie, but he brushes this aside. Eight “healthies” have been recruited for the human trials. And then – spoiler alert – he tries the drug out on himself, develops a massive reaction, and dies. Accident? Surely not from brilliant David. Suicide? Surely not from Golden Boy. Or was it his colleague Rosa’s fault, deliberately or accidentally? She does say very early on, “what I did killed him.”
We see the situation from the point of view of many people in David’s life: his sister Ly, his old friend Miles Southcott, his girlfriend Abigail, Rosa, who made a career-ending mistake and is now working as a glorified lab assistant, and the spin doctor Harry Renard who was part of the hyping of the drug and now becomes part of the clean-up operation for the venture capitalists behind it, especially the Cunningham family when Charlie’s role in the disaster becomes known.
Susan Hurley has a long career in medical research herself, and she gets the science across without giving the unscientific reader any headaches. Running alongside the scientific thriller is the story of David’s escape from Vietnam and of the deceit and danger that are dogging him and his family. Wherever Susan Hurley’s knowledge of Vietnamese culture comes from, it feels authentic and the story of Dung, Ly and their mother Ma is genuinely moving and, in the end, shocking. The shiny tabloid story of the refugee made good gives way to the truth of the unending trauma refugee families suffer.
Clever and thoughtful,with lots of heart, it’s a very impressive debut.