Monday, November 23, 2020

The Illness Lesson - Clare Beams

A mysterious flock of red birds has descended over Birch Hill. Recently reinvented, it is now home to an elite and progressive school designed to shape the minds of young women. But Eliza Bell – the most inscrutable and defiant of the students – has been overwhelmed by an inexplicable illness.

One by one, the other girls begin to experience the same peculiar symptoms: rashes, fits, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. Soon Caroline – the only woman teaching – begins to suffer too. She tries desperately to hide her symptoms but, with the birds behaving strangely and the girls’ condition worsening, the powers-that-be turn to a sinister physician with grave and dubious methods.

Caroline alone can speak on behalf of the students, but only if she summons the confidence to question everything she’s ever learnt. Does she have the strength to confront the all-male, all-knowing authorities of her world and protect the young women in her care?

Distinctive, haunting, irresistible, The Illness Lesson is an intensely vivid debut about women's minds and bodies, and the time-honoured tradition of doubting both.
  (Summary and pic from

My Review: This was an interesting little book, and one that I think might be off of your immediate radar. First off, the cover is gorgeous and super interesting. I love cool cover art. Also, the story itself actually fits in really well with the cover art, which is cool. You know how when you look at it and read the description it’s a little bit creepy? A tad mysterious? And maybe just slightly off? Well, my friends, you’ll be happy to know that the book is like this, too!

The writing in this book is so interesting. It’s really well-written. Beams is a master at her craft. I wouldn’t go as far to say that the writing is sparse, but am instead settling on “measured.” The writing is very measured. The writing itself—the way it is spaced on the page, the words that are chosen, the cadence of the dialogue—all sets an interesting tone. It is somewhat creepy (and I like creepy!) and feels really mysterious, like there is something going on that we aren’t privy to; that these characters are maybe hiding something that we should know about but don’t. I liked it. It set a really great atmosphere and was, in fact, very apropos to the story.

The time period of the story also lends itself to creepiness. It’s after the Civil War, in the 1870’s, and the protagonists set up a school in which they can teach their progressive ways to women. (I appreciated this, by the way). What follows can only be described as a foreboding set of events from many angles, and these events turn into an “illness” that is never really determined, and this all leads to what I feel is an extremely disturbing resolution. What is even more disturbing about this resolution is I know that this kind of thing actually happened (I’m trying to be vague here), and sometimes that is even creepier. The whole book itself was super interesting and really moody but also really weird in a lot of ways. I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I look back at a book and reflect on reading it, I have feelings and senses of what I thought. Even if I don’t recollect exactly what was going on or the minute details, I can remember how it made me feel or the general gist. Looking back at this book, I feel strangeness and mystery and a very strong sense of time and place. This doesn’t always happen. It’s a credit to the author that I feel this way. It stands out to me as a book that was different from anything else I’ve ever read.

If you like atmospheric stories, and ones that are really interesting and different, I think you should check this out.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some light language and some incidents of sexual abuse by a trusted individual that I found to be disturbing. 

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