Laura, the haunted heroine of the haunting dynamo novel “Rest and Be Thankful,” is a pediatric nurse spiraling into a nasty case of burnout. She keeps hallucinating a dark figure intent on self-destruction. The constant specter of infant mortality besieges her every thought at the frenzied London hospital where she works. Her boyfriend, good for very little, plans to leave her. Everyday life is coming down hard on her head, and she’s scrambling to keep up.
Laura’s mind overflows with the language of her creator, Emma Glass, which means she floats along on a sea of high-wire alliteration, jazzy rhythms and tactile description. Laura may be inundated by gloom, but her gloom really zings. Here she is unfurling some fresh sheets: “As we lift them taut into the air I hope to smell the fake flowery fragrance or fresh-washed sheets but all I smell is dry sterility, the faint smell of steel, steam and slight scorching.” Scintillating.
Glass, herself a pediatric nurse who earned critical acclaim for her debut novel “Peach,” expertly mixes long, loping sentences with short declarations and fragments. Not much happens in “Rest and Be Thankful”: Laura shows up for work, looks in on her patients, interacts with her colleagues, goes home, sleeps and dreams, gets up, does it again.
Her interior life, however, is one dark, lively neighborhood. She has vivid dreams of drowning that make the pages feel waterlogged. She observes everything in the minutest detail, especially as it concerns her body. Laura sweats and you feel you’re doing the same, becoming acutely aware of every drop. Her skin itches and you start scratching.
“Rest and Be Thankful” is a pungent piece of writing, tactile and sensory to the extreme. Entering the hospital chapel, Laura notes, “The deep green carpet is lush and thick like forest ferns.” Regarding her hallucinations: “These visions are in me, they are my veins, they are my heartstrings. They stitch me together, running black stitches.” This is a feverish read, short and immersive, rich with dense imagery and symbolism.
What it doesn’t really have is a narrative, at least not one that you can latch onto with any assurance that it will take you somewhere. You can still get lost in these pages, but it’s Laura’s interior life, not her story, that pulls you in.
That will be enough for some readers; it was for this one. Others will likely long for Laura to transform, or arrive, or escape the darkly mundane. This isn’t that kind of novel. Instead, it’s a lived-in portrait of a hardworking woman pushed to the fringes of her mind, where she keeps finding new reserves of strength, and a reminder that literary heroism takes many different forms.
Chris Vognar is a Houston resident whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.
Rest and Be Thankful
By: Emma Glass.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 160 pages, $18.