The Illness Lesson: A Novel

Image of The Illness Lesson: A Novel
Release Date: 
February 11, 2020
Reviewed by: 

“an astonishing book.”

The author of the much-celebrated debut collection, We Show What We Have Learned & Other Stories, now tries her accomplished hand at the longer fictive form. The Illness Lesson, Clare Beams’ first novel, is an astonishing book. Its opening paragraph establishes tone, and that tone is notable: a mix of closely observed physical gesture and spiritual abstraction. To wit: “The first of the birds Caroline mistook for her own mind’s work. When the streak of red crossed the kitchen windowpane, fast, disastrous-bright, she thought it was some bloody piece come loose inside herself.”

Throughout, Beams performs this juggling act, yoking the quotidian detail to the semi-surreal. The Illness Lesson is set in Ashwell, Massachusetts, in 1871, on the farm of Samuel Hood and his daughter Caroline—who is the principal witness to and perpetrator of the action of the book. That action takes place almost entirely on the Hood family farm, which has been transformed into a boarding school for girls, “Trilling Hearts.” The name describes, as well, “the first of the birds” in the novel’s first sentence, whose menacing beauty and strange thievery haunts the action here. 

Hood, a philosopher whose fame has lessened, seeks to establish his precepts in practice as a kind of cultural supervisor of a group of increasingly wayward girls. Those precepts have much to do with what we now call “liberation,” a future-facing conviction that young women should be taught more than domestic arts. Bunyan and Shakespeare are to be studied, and “free-thinking” is encouraged—at least up to a point. Late 19th century New England was full of such idealistic institutions, and the girls were encouraged to pursue philosophy and natural science instead of needlepoint.

“Caroline’s father had written a great and famous essay against cruelty, which scores of New England schoolchildren could quote from memory. She had seen him stop a man in the street who was striking his horse.” One of the strengths of this novel is its evocation of the period; the reader never doubts that “schoolchildren could quote from memory,” or that men ride horses in the street. Ms. Beams has a pitch-perfect ear for the language of the nineteenth century; her dialogue rings true. Here father and daughter respond to a skeptic:

“‘Giving them that kind of knowledge--encouraging that kind of contemplation--seems to me cruel”

“‘I don’t think so. It’s in such contemplation that we foster the enlargement of the soul,’ Samuel said.

“‘Oh souls, souls. We need to worry about the world, not souls. Show me a soul.’

“’Didn’t we?’ Caroline said.”

Principal among the students is young Eliza Pearson Bell, whose dead father wrote a popular novel titled The Darkening Glass. That tale records his love affair with Anna, Caroline’s mother, (called Louisa in his fiction) and crisscrosses the border between artistic fantasy and truth.  Quotations from The Darkening Glass preface each chapter in The Illness Lesson, and Beams’ book does darken. A subplot here deals with Caroline’s at-first suppressed passion for the third of the teachers, David Moore, a disciple of her father’s. The three of them (father, daughter, and the younger man with—it turns out—a wife) act in concert as instructors for the eight girls. Soon enough, however, the ensemble collapses, and rare red birds invade and claim the field.

The novel’s plot is slowly paced but with a gathering horror and in the Gothic mode. Eliza seems to be subject to fits; with headaches and night wanderings and tics. She grows a red spot in her eye, red blotches on her skin. The other schoolgirls catch the contagion—or share in the hysteria—and a sinister doctor enters the scene. Re-enters it, in fact; he had been part of the original Birch Hill experiment, a visionary community that disbanded after Caroline’s mother’s sudden death. Dr. Hawkins’s invasive course of treatment is history-based, and the author’s research feels authoritative. His masculine conviction that he can deal with their collective fears has more than a touch of sexual sadism; each of the men in this novel are blinkered and—no matter how well-intentioned—flawed.  

There’s enough suspense and mystery engendered—What to make of those beautiful and vengeful birds?—so the plot-twist of the ending should be kept a surprise. Suffice it to say that Beams shows a kind of mastery in yoking the natural to the surreal and linking grief and fear to rage. The birds steal objects from the girls—a piece of fabric, a lock of hair, an earring—and line their burgeoning nests. But are they willful and volitional or merely pursuing instinctual patterns; is there malice here?

Early on, we read of Caroline, “She could not stop anticipating how her inheritance from this unknown mother might arrive. Perhaps with a jerk of the fingers, as if pulled by twine. Or in the chest, a new thump, a foreign heart. In the legs, a sudden refusal to bear the body’s unaccustomed weight. In the head, a hot white limitlessness.”

The relation of father to daughter is central to the book, and it melds cruelty and kindness with reference to Caroline’s “inheritance”; when at last she breaks away from her father’s tutelage and comes to terms with her lost past, the future beckons. “’Now,’ Caroline said, ‘I think we must find productive ways of living in the world as it is.” She writes an essay disavowing not the aims but method of the “Trilling Hearts’” instruction. “My father sought to demonstrate with our school the truth and importance of certain principles. While I am certain of nothing, I believe our failure lies not in those principles themselves but in the discrepancy between them and the world in which we live. We were, I think, making girls for a world that does not exist. That cost them.”

This fictive evocation of “a world that does not exist” is a luminous addition to “the world in which we live.”