Rest and Be Thankful, Emma Glass (Bloomsbury 978-1-526-60107-0, £12.99, 144pp, hc) March 2020.
While I know it’s odd to say anything remotely positive about 2020, I found this to be an incredible year for fiction and especially sophomore novels from some of the UK’s brightest authors, including Daisy Johnson, Sophie Mackintosh, Megan Hunter, and now Emma Glass. Peach, Glass’s debut novel published in 2018, was an ambitious, if not entirely successful, story about sexual abuse and revenge. It blended the absurd with the traumatic and was told in a staccato, alliterative style reflecting the protagonist’s state of mind. In comparison, Glass’s latest book, Rest and Be Thankful, while not as experimental or surreal as its predecessor, is a more mature work, a haunting, intimate portrayal of the nurses who sacrifice their physical and psychological well-being for the sake of others.
Our main character, Laura, is a pediatric nurse working 12-hour shifts caring for sick children. At night she dreams of drowning in a cold, dark lake, in the presence of a “figure, a faceless form, a shadow settled in silt.” In the morning, Laura finds herself treading literally and figuratively around the residue of a broken relationship:
This is how I live now. Navigating your stuff, careful not to knock things down, careful not to leave marks. Your hair sticks to my bare feet, there is dust in the corners of the room. This is how I live now, in this domestic disgust.
One day, waiting to catch a train for work, she glimpses a figure at the end of the platform, similar to the one from her dreams, “a face white and drawn, eyes in shadow, indistinguishable.” Just as the train approaches, the person leaps over the edge; however, there’s no screeching of brakes or the crunch of a body or any evidence anyone jumped from the platform. Bewildered and frightened, Laura dismisses what she saw as the product of a tired mind. As the days pass, though, as Laura’s life alternates between a partner who no longer loves her and the intensity of her work, she continues to witness the figure, both at the hospital and in her dreams.
Drawing on Glass’s experience as a pediatric nurse at a major London hospital, Rest and Be Thankful gives voice to the many thousands of people who have devoted their lives to the care of others. What’s so refreshing and genuinely uplifting about the novel is that, despite the mounting pressure both at work and at home, symbolised by the figure Laura spies from the corner of her eye, she is never anything but extremely competent at her job. Laura’s experiences, whether it’s the banter she shares with her co-workers or how she carefully explains the ins and outs of pediatric care to a student nurse or the way she watches over the children, knowing there are times when nothing can be done to save them, provides an insight into what it means to care for another human being – not just the children but also their parents. As an example, there’s this remarkable moment where Laura explains to her student why the unit uses black towels:
We have them and we hope we never have to use them. We have them because our patients have a low platelet count. They could haemorrhage, and rather than let the parents see the bleeding, see sopping saturated soaking-wet red towels, we use the dark ones. The dark towels soak up the blood so you can’t see the red.
It’s such a small, intricate detail, an act of kindness that leaves you breathless because it requires an appreciation of tragedy, of death, of the fragility of the human body that many of us justifiably shy away from.
Rest and Be Thankful was, of course, written before the first COVID cases presented themselves in Europe. And yet, as I read the novel, as I became immersed in Glass’s depiction of a hospital system and its staff of care-givers under permanent strain – even in a non-pandemic world – I was reminded of that period during the first wave when people in the UK clapped for the nurses, a gesture of gratitude that, for all its benevolence, couldn’t excuse or make-up for the Tory Government’s gutting of the National Health Services. While I’m sure many of us can acknowledge the amount of stress and mental anguish faced by underpaid nurses in an environment where resources are scarce, as COVID-19 cases steeply rise across Europe, Rest and Be Thankful is a visceral, disturbing, and sometimes oh-so-tragic reminder that as a community we need to do more for our care-givers globally – that a round of applause is simply not enough.
This review and more like it in the December 2020 issue of Locus.
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