A nurse in a pediatric hospital, Laura veers between the emotional highs and enervating lows of emergency medicine, subsisting on caffeine and a hard-wired sense of duty. With lives in the balance, she and her colleagues avail themselves at the expense of their own well-being. “We are cotton buds sucking up the sadness of others,” Laura professes, surveying another 12-hour shift of literal blood, sweat and tears. “We are saturated, we are saviours.”
So arrives the first wave of the covid-19 novels — even if “Rest and Be Thankful,” which was first published in the United Kingdom in March, is an inadvertent one. In a brief autofictional account, Glass, herself a children’s nurse in London, conveys the burdens borne by first responders and an ever-sickening populace.
Tasked with suppressing their emotions while on the clock, the nurses and doctors struggle to express them in their own homes; when a child dies, they must feign resolve before grieving in private. They must slow the creep of mortality until the last possible moment, at which point they abruptly pivot from healers to consolers. They are potent caregivers one minute and helpless witnesses the next, scrubbing their hands until their knuckles crack and ooze.
In Laura’s account, health care is intuitive and mechanical, a process of precise movements and calculations performed day after day and year after year. When a patient enters cardiac arrest, Laura describes her attempts at resuscitation: “Pain rages up my arms and across my shoulders. I keep going. Each compression means everything. And this could all mean nothing.”
If the rote and rigor of the work dulls its life-or-death pressure, it contributes to a relentless, bone-deep exhaustion that seeps into the practitioners’ personal lives. The physical strain of caring for sick children is so immediate that Laura and her colleagues tend to disregard the emotional wear, to catastrophic effects. Glass achieves a holistic view not only of the work, but the life of a health-care professional, her prosaic descriptions and muffled dialogue effecting an aesthetic quietude — like a hospital, or a morgue. Anyone who’s ever wondered how doctors arrive at their dry senses of humor would do well to read “Rest and Be Thankful.”
Glass’s rhythms are realistically inadvertent, unconcerned with objectivity — or with clarity, for that matter. Brevity ensures that “Rest and Be Thankful” isn’t hamstrung by a lack of character development, but for a book so rich with interiority, the exposition can feel willfully opaque.
On the one hand, Laura resonates because of her anonymity: she is a representative cog in an overtaxed, labyrinthine system. But this setup defangs Glass’s more ambitious devices — hallucinatory dream sequences, shifts in perspective and chronology — which would otherwise make for captivating reveals. That a nurse’s job requires an almost preternatural sense of moral obligation goes effectively unsaid; Laura’s extraordinary ability (if not outright desire) to absorb pain is largely unexamined. Even as she approaches a breakdown and partakes in suicidal ideation, the writing maintains a glassy, poetic remove.
In its economy, autofictional methods and gestures at untold trauma, “Rest and Be Thankful” recalls Claire-Louise Bennett’s “Pond,” an Irish novella which found an eager American audience in 2016. A quiet book set in a quiet village, “Pond” evinced an engrossingly ruminative interiority, though its plot and themes were practically latent. Glass delivers a far more urgent book, but she shares Bennett’s visual focus and pointillist detail, her penchant for lyrical interludes, and a romance for nature manifested in metaphors. The book’s experimental asides can feel like garnish for a clear mission, but they serve to widen Glass’s lens and convey a fuller experience beyond the pediatric ward’s walls. As in “Pond,” there’s an uncanny coolness to Glass’s portrayal of an unstable young woman, a voyeurism that’s by turns both pleasant and perverse.
If this imbues Glass’s novel with an element of escapism (stateside readers will need to indulge the additional fantasy of nationalized health care void of a profit motive), “Rest and Be Thankful” functions as a powerful document, a testament to the silent class of first responders who risk their safety in exchange for scattered 7 p.m. applause during a pandemic. Glass’s short book ably meets the ponderous inquiries of caregiving in a tribute to both fragility and forbearance.
Pete Tosiello is a writer and critic based in New York.
Rest and Be Thankful
By Emma Glass
Bloomsbury Circus. 160 pp. $18