Publication Date: 6th February 2020
This book is one of those exciting beasts that make my blood fizz with excitement! I devoured it.
I almost dismissed it before even getting my hands on a copy because I’d heard it centered around a group of teenage girls. If you’ve been a regular on the blog for a while you’ll know that I don’t enjoy books with female teenage protagonists and particularly if there is a group of teenage girls in a school setting. What I didn’t realise was The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams is actually set in the late 1800’s and I love me some historical fiction as you know! My aversion to teenage girls is firmly rooted in the contemporary so I decided to give the book a whirl! I am so glad that I did and of course very grateful to the lovely Alison Barrow for sending me a copy. (A BEAUTIFUL copy at that!).
The Illness Lesson tells the story of our protagonist Caroline Hood who lives on a farm in Massachusetts with her philosopher and essayist father Samuel Hood. The book opens with the arrival of a flock of vibrant red birds which have only previously been seen a few decades before. Infact very little is known about this strange species of bird, so little infact that it was not given an official name for a while. However, Caroline’s now deceased mother gave them the whimsical name of ‘Trilling Hearts’ (I love this!). Samuel believes these strange birds to be portentous and really feels that there recent arrival heralds a signal for change. Caroline however feels uneasy about these birds despite most people around her extolling their beauty.
Samuel feels that now is the time to start his own school as an experiment of sorts. In a time where young females are taught the lessons of life, eg sewing, homemaking etc Samuel (being an eminent thinker) wants to teach the girls real lessons. Lessons where the girls will actually have to think and engage with the topics. Have conversations and form opinions. Lessons like these have not been attempted with young girls previously and there are a number of eminent education professionals keeping a keen eye on the experiment.
Caroline is to be a teacher at the school, along with an acolyte of Samuel called David. Caroline is drawn to David from the off and has to try to control her burgeoning feelings for him.
As a backdrop to this we know that Caroline’s mother died when Caroline was young. Caroline is aware that her mother was an epilepsy sufferer and she unfortunately one day had a fit which ultimately led to her death. This knowledge has been hanging over Caroline’s head like a dark cloud for years. She constantly worries that any twinge or strange feeling in her own body is the onset of the condition which tragically killed her mother.
When the small group of girls arrive at the school, they seem to take well to their initial lessons. One of the girls, Eliza has links to Caroline and Samuel from the recent past and seems to wield this power over them and the other girls. She has an enigmatic draw to the other students and appears to be the pinnacle of the group.
When Eliza starts to experience ‘falling fits’ out of the blue, strange occurances start to happen to the other girls. Skin rashes, verbal tics, fainting episodes, shaking hands, all of which seem to be increasing in voracity with no apparent cause. Samuel, David and Caroline are all equally as baffled by the girls symptoms and cannot fathom between them what could be the root cause of them. Could it be a group psychosis, mass hysteria or something more sinister afoot? Why too do the Trilling Hearts keep appearing at the oddest of moments and in the oddest of ways?
Ultimately Samuel and David want the school to be successful and not to fail under scrutiny and feel their reputations depend on it, therefore they choose to not inform the girls parents and bring in an outside doctor Hawkins to assess the girls and make recommendations for their rehabilitation. From here on in things take an even more disturbing and sinister turn.
But ultimately what does it all mean for Caroline? For her life, her health and her reputation.
There are so many themes in this book to consider, which is why it had my brain fizzing! I suppose the pinnacle of the story is the way in which young girls and women were treated at the time, despite the best attempts to educate them in more than simple homemaking tasks. It is this forward thinking that is then undermined by the assessment and subsequent ‘cure’ of the girls. I should say that the method undertaken for ‘curing’ the girls is horrifying and when the penny dropped I almost didn’t want to believe it.
The characterization in this book is brilliant. Caroline and Eliza are particularly compelling but all the girls are identifiable by their own distinct character traits so that none of them get lost or feel interchangeable.
Caroline is presented as a fairly strong minded woman. Someone who has defied the way life is ‘supposed’ to go for a woman of her age and standing at the time. She has not left the childhood home, she hasn’t married or had children which during that time was the natural way of things. But is this out of choice or circumstance? She is also living under the dark shadow of not only losing her mother but of fearing the very thing she dreads the most, falling ill with the same condition. She is hyper aware of every feeling in her body and lives with the sense of unease surrounding the death of her mother.
Eliza is a very enigmatic and mysterious character with a calculating side. She is able to quite proficiently draw the other young girls under her spell and seems to have some kind of hold over them. This hold extends to Caroline and Samuel and they are almost nervous of her and the effect she is having on the girls.
The Trilling Hearts bring a sinister edge to the whole story, these mysterious birds that seem to have defied catagorisation for a long time, infiltrate the school and behave in the strangest of ways. I was never quite sure of their meaning but they instilled a dark sense of foreboding in me when I was reading.
All in all this book really drew me in. Clare Beam’s writing is beautiful and drips atmosphere (in fact I re-read certain passages a few times, particularly the opening paragraph). I would absolutely recommend you getting your hands on a copy!
Thank you so much to Alison Barrow and Doubleday for the review copy.
See you all soon.
Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx