Rest and Be Thankful
Bloomsbury Circus | December 1, 2020
British writer Emma Glass could not have predicted the global pandemic when she was writing her second novel, Rest and Be Thankful, about a nurse on the brink of burnout. In the book, Glass, who worked as a nurse in children’s hospitals for most of her career, paints a visceral, utterly humane, and timely portrait of the people who sacrifice their own well-being for the benefit of others day in and day out.
For Laura, a pediatric nurse assigned to an isolation ward, the prognosis is poor. At work, a baby named Danny, whose “two little lungs are rubber balloons never blown,” has stopped responding to treatment and is being prepared for end-of-life care. At home, Laura oversleeps and wakes up aching, bereft of body and spirit. Her partner, repelled by her disheveled and dispassionate state, tells her he no longer loves her. In vivid dreams, and soon in waking life, Laura is haunted by the figure of a woman in black, a figment of her increasingly befuddled mind or else the harbinger of a psychotic break. In one especially arresting scene, Laura allows herself the pleasurable release and embarrassment of breaking down in front of a colleague. She reflects:
“We are cotton buds sucking up the sadness of others, we are saturated, we are saviors. We absorb pain, too thick with mess to notice that everything around us is drying up and growing over. We will wake up one day in a wasteland, surrounded by the crumbling bones of those who loved us and waited for us to love them back. We did not forget but we were too busy being useful.”
Here, Laura’s narration evokes the steely gentleness requisite of her line of work. From the novel’s opening scene, we are oriented to the urgent but calm rhythm of intensive care. Kneeling over the small body of a patient and administering CPR Laura describes, “The sound is bone pounding on soft bone, a flat heart, lungs filled with oxygen from a tank, oxygen soon to spill and fill the belly and the pumping will be harder and my arms are aching already.” Here, Glass’s penchant for meter simulates the tempo that energizes and soothes Laura as she fights to sustain a child’s life. The confiding tone and indulgence in sensory details act as a salve. Like the effects of a good remedy, the experience of reading is dissociative in parts and restorative in others.
But above all, the novel is a cautionary tale, revealing the great personal cost that comes with caring for the sick and vulnerable. Laura’s laser focus on her job and total neglect of self-care have devastating consequences for herself and those in her charge. When Danny dies, Laura’s mental state becomes increasingly unstable. Sheer exhaustion rips the veil between both her sleep, which is overwhelmed by dreams of watery deaths, and her waking hours, when she is expected to be at her sharpest capacity. The specter of the woman in black also grows more sinister, goading her in empty patient rooms and stairwells. And just when things seem to be looking up for Laura, securing a room in the hospital residences, the final beat of the novel suggests the gravest error yet during one of her shifts.
The powerful story unfolds in just 135 pages, with economic prose that operates on a subdermal level, rather than covering a lot of narrative ground. Under reddened, flaking skin are tangled nerves and throbbing veins. “Glorious saliva pours” when Laura pops a piece of gum in her mouth at the start of another day in the ward. “A small spurt of joy.” Standing next to Dr. Wilfred, with whom she’s had an ongoing flirtation, Laura notes, “He smells like cotton and soap and sweat. He smells like hard work.” And when the doctors break the news to Danny’s mother, Laura holds the other woman, thinking, “She’s not ready to be soothed yet, so my arms remain rigid. We don’t rock.” In this sterile place crammed with machines and governed by protocols, Glass’s characters rebelliously assert empathy in small, unspoken ways.
This empathy is most striking about Rest and Be Thankful—Laura’s persistent tenderness despite the harrowing routine of her job and the fracturing of her home life. Readers might take the slow pace of the novel for weariness, but the affectionate way Laura describes her work gives it a certain elegance. Even in her most depleted state, Laura doesn’t waver in her warmth and kindness. Early on, Glass describes in leisurely detail Laura rubbing Danny’s little toes to drive blood back into them. Later, Laura offers encouraging smiles to their nursing student as they change a patient’s bedding in unison like “synchronized swimmers.” And, as a mother takes a razor to her daughter’s withering hair, Laura whispers in the girl’s ear saying, “she was strong like a tree and her red hair was autumn leaves falling.”
Laura is an everywoman of her profession, and in telling her story, Glass provides a sobering glance at the immense physical and psychological burden shouldered by healthcare workers. In our reality, the coronavirus pandemic has laid these tolls bare. Hailing the compassionate and hardworking people in the medical field as heroes should move beyond virtue signaling or marketing ploys. With beauty and grace, Glass’s stunning second novel implores readers to fight for those who quite literally expend their own life force for the sake of others every day.