WICKETT'S REMEDY *

By Myla Goldberg

Doubleday. 326 pp. $24.95

Two hurdles confront a novelist who writes about epidemic disease. The first is the Yuck Factor -- as in, "Yuck, who wants to read a book about phlegm?" The second is that the writer will have to kill off a number of characters, and it can be tricky to find the balance between making a character important enough to engage the reader but not so important that her or his demise will destroy the narrative momentum.

In Wickett's Remedy, a novel concerned with the limits of love and learning set during the flu epidemic of 1918, Myla Goldberg has addressed the latter issue by giving us a protagonist, Lydia Wickett, an Irish-American shop-girl turned nurse's aide, who is capable of carrying the story as a slew of major and minor characters expire all around her. But when it comes to the Yuck Factor, Goldberg gives no quarter to the squeamish. Consider this passage, describing a medical experiment in flu transmission performed on human subjects: "The recruit lay perfectly still as Cole circled a swab inside his nostril until the soft white of the swab's tip had been obscured by a layer of yellow-green mucus. Then, handling the glistening swab with the care a jeweler might lavish on a rare gem, Cole rushed from the bed to the other side of the curtain, where he spread the contents of the swab inside the nostrils of a volunteer, stroking back and forth within the nostril as though applying a thin, fast-drying coat of paint." There is a great deal of this sort of thing, as there should be in a novel about the flu, but the writing is wincingly vivid. You have been warned.

In her first novel, Bee Season, Goldberg proved herself an engaging writer, at her very best in describing the weird bonds of family affection but also strong in mustering detailed research. She's no sentimentalist. The endings of Bee Season and Wickett's Remedy are harshly disappointing to the hopes of major characters. So it comes as a surprise that her portrait of South Boston is so very sentimentalized. Stripped of dangerous drunks, misogynist brutes or blatant racists, Wickett's Remedy is peopled by noble working-class families who do not let the strain of poverty prevent them from reveling together in good times and succoring each other in bad. Lydia, the product of this idealized milieu, is its selfless personification, volunteering to nurse flu victims as a way of dealing with grief for her own beloved dead.

Goldberg treads a fine line here: Saints can be so uninteresting. But by giving Lydia a questing intelligence and a yearning spirit, Goldberg makes her motivations lucid and plausible. Her romanticized Southie also works, in the end, as a stark foil for the brutalities of a wider world sliding into war and an imperfectly understood epidemic.

But Goldberg isn't content with telling what should have been a gripping story. Instead, she has gathered together a handful of unconventional devices and flung them at her text. There is, for example, a chorus, clamoring away at us from the book's margins. This turns out to be the voice of the dead, who chime in whenever something in the narrative -- usually something trivial -- conflicts with their memory of events. Apparently this is meant to be a witty, Derrida-esque commentary on the nature of story, but I found it merely distracting and often a barrier to full engagement with the novel. There is also, at the end of every chapter, a slew of historical documents, some faux, some real, and snatches of dialogue between minor characters. Some of this resolves into a mildly engaging subplot, but most of it -- news clippings and public notices -- just hangs there, dangling like unsightly threads of yarn that should have been knitted into the garment.

The one marginal note that stayed with me long after I closed the book showed that this structure had potential that usually went unrealized. In the main text, Lydia has returned for the first time to the West End flat where, despite her efforts with poultices and steaming water, her husband died of flu. Lydia arrives to find that her somewhat distant and disapproving upper-class mother-in-law, Ernestine Wickett, has been there to pack and strip the bed. "She sat on the mattress and dared herself to look at the floor. The onion poultice was gone. Some angel had removed it." In the margin, the note reads: "Ernestine Wickett felt physically ill unmaking her son's marriage bed, but it allowed her to cry for him rather than herself -- which in turn allowed her, on seeing the onion poultice, to cry for her daughter-in-law." It is in these moments of sensitivity to the nuances of family emotion that Goldberg's writing shines. *

Geraldine Brooks is the author of the novels "March" and "Year of Wonders."