Druggies lives

IN THE REALM OF HUNGRY GHOSTS: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH ADDICTION by Gabor Mate (Knopf), 465 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNNFinally,.


IN THE REALM OF HUNGRY GHOSTS: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH ADDICTION by Gabor Mate (Knopf), 465 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN

Finally, a book on addiction whose protagonist wont end up recanting his words on the Oprah Winfrey show.

Not that I disliked James Freys 2003 breakout novel A Million Little Pieces. In fact, I read it in four sittings.

But if that resolute tale of despair and renewal were to remain the most widely read book on addiction of this millennium, I would call Oprah to say we have a problem.

Fortunately, Gabor Mates In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts is a more nuanced and complex meditation on what opium-eater Thomas de Quincy called the abiding darkness.

Mate knows this darkness well. For the last seven years, hes been staff physician at the Portland Hotel, a harm-reduction and residence facility on Vancouvers Downtown Eastside, and has seen his share of hungry ghosts.

Stories haunt this book: a middle-aged heroin addict recounts childhood nights locked in the washing machine by his mother women recount abuse of every sort. Many of Mates subjects are HIV-positive most have lost everything.

Yet for all the suffering in these addicts lives, Mate does not regard them as victims. By listening to them and capturing with a novelists precision their language and other ways of expressing themselves, he posits an unusual, bold twist on the classic doctor-patient relationship and its built-in imbalance of power.

Structurally, In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts is a joint venture between Mate the writer and Mate the scientist. About half the book focuses on the stories told by his patients, and the other half explores in theoretical terms the intricate connections between the physiological, social and psychological components of addiction.

A powerful and compassionate work.

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