In our contemporary pandemic, nurses have assumed a heroic status. Front-line workers face horrors we can’t begin to imagine. How could author — and a nurse herself — Emma Glass have known how perceptions of her occupation and the subject of her second novel would shift after the March 2020 British publication of “Rest and Be Thankful”? This slim but potent novel, just published here, offers an unfiltered, blistering perspective into the grueling labor of one essential worker.
Glass strives to tap into the psychic underbelly of trauma. With writing that defies simple frameworks, she looks beyond the conventional movement and description to conjure a more evocative understanding of human experience. Glass’s 2018 debut, “Peach” was a visceral novel of sexual violence and its aftermath, driven by vivid language rather than plot. Similarly, “Rest and Be Thankful” adheres to a linear narrative only loosely.
At the novel’s center is Laura, a pediatric nurse in London. Short chapters reveal the fragmented reality of her endless NICU shifts, and the fraying of one’s notion of time. Rather than minutes and hours, “time stretches, rolling out clumsily like cling film, air holes, splits, wrinkles.” Worn thin by long shifts, Laura works on instinct and emotion. This is not to take away from her ability. Devotion is certainly one crucial element of her job, but she’s also skillful. Speaking of her colleagues, she observes, “These are the faces of people I don’t know very well, but they are the faces of people I trust.” Hers is not a job that accommodates easy camaraderie; instead, we see a network of skilled professionals working in tandem with one another.
Together they manage a range of pediatric patients. Parents hover helplessly (of one, Glass writes, “she wants to spend time while she has it, with him, but really there is no time”), but it’s the doctors and nurses who minister to all. Glass captures the ways in which nurses must perform their tasks while juggling multiple concerns — all the while managing a high stress, emotional relationship to patients and their caretakers.
Throughout the novel, Laura steals time for the reflections that ground her in her work and steel her conviction: “This moment, this silent morning when mums and dads are sleeping, I am here, I am working in the dark. I slip in, I ease myself between them and the crushing weight of their worry. I spread my palms, my dry skin cracks, but I gladly take the weight and I brace myself. I spread my arms, my tired arms tremble. But it’s never too much, I can take more.” Her endurance is impressive, yet her reward is merely more work.
The action takes place over time, but it feels like a kind of hallucinogenic “day in the life” story. This is laid bare further by Laura’s relationship to her unconscious, professional, and personal lives. Each is warped because of the relentless nature of her work schedule and its demands. There’s mention of a shaky relationship with her immediate family and her relationship with her live-in boyfriend dissolves over the course of the book.
Even when she leaves work, Laura carries the burden of her occupation with her always. After comforting a mother who has learned over “death china… brought out for families when their children die” that her infant Danny will not survive, Laura finds herself covered in tears and vomit. “I am slick with sick. I am stained with grief. I’ll wash but it won’t wear away. Grief will be worn like a cloak, will drag behind me, heavy.”
One must read this short novel closely to recognize where one narrative thread bleeds into another. Throughout the book, Laura slips in and out of one nightmare, then the next. A figure stepping off a platform onto a train, a shadowy, furtive woman whose mouth is a dark void, a ghost in the hospital: increasingly these imagined encounters haunt Laura in equal part with her patients.
“Was she grasping at my wrist somewhere in my dream, was she screaming? Pity floods and sinks my insides. No one should have to see their child die.” Laura fails to distinguish between her gnawing present and her nightmares. Much of it is sleep deprivation, but it’s also the accumulation of collective burdens.
Glass maintains this fragile balance with poetic yet direct language, in a text anchored by epigrammatic chapter headings that makes this hallucinatory (yet all too graphically real) book click. It reads almost like a thriller as Laura’s mind slips. During our own time of heightened crisis, this bracing, even brutal, novel dresses you in the uncomfortable scrubs and clogs of one who has witnessed horror but then washed up to begin work again.
Lauren LeBlanc is a writer and developmental editor who lives in Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter @lequincampe.
REST AND BE THANKFUL
By Emma Glass
Bloomsbury, 160 pages, $18