Rest and Be Thankful by Emma Glass
Published by Bloomsbury Circus, 2020
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Despite being a relatively short read, Rest and Be Thankful manages to pack a hefty punch. We follow Laura, a paediatric nurse, as the physical and emotional demands of her job become increasingly all consuming. With exhaustion taking hold and her relationship falling apart, strange nightmares begin to bleed into her days. Eventually, she finds herself haunted by an elusive spectre; a menacing figure that always seems to linger just beyond her grasp.
If there’s ever a time to collectively stop taking for granted the enormous sacrifices made by healthcare workers, it’s now, and though this novel doesn’t deal with any kind of pandemic, it does a wonderful job of showing just how overworked and under-supported nursing staff are – even at the best of times.
There’s such a gentleness to much of the book, but it is this distinctly quiet grace that lends several moments their devastating power. An early example springs to mind in which Laura lovingly tends to Danny, a baby she has become particularly fond of. With Danny’s mother asleep by his side, Laura clears the baby’s airways, reads his pulse, and warms his tiny toes between her fingers. As she does this, she can tell that he isn’t going to survive, and knows his mother must be told this devastating news when she wakes up. The scene is so understated and avoids all melodrama, and yet it gave me shivers.
For a time, Laura is partnered with a young and enthusiastic student nurse. Glass uses their dynamic to explore the difficult balancing act that experienced nurses must perform, as they prepare newcomers for the reality of life on the ward without crushing every ounce of their hope and optimism. As events unfold, Glass also explores the lack of effective support in place to help nurses process the constant stress and grief they must endure. This is where the flirtations with the supernatural really come into their own, with Laura appearing to lose her grip on reality. The increasing presence of the mysterious spectre is matched by a swelling tension; a tragic conclusion feeling ever more inevitable. There are fascinating conversations to be had here, but to me, the figure itself represented a physical manifestation of Laura’s unaddressed trauma, and the threat of allowing this kind of pain to haunt you.
Away from the hospital, we see the effect Laura’s enormous work commitments have had on her relationship. In fact, the book is written largely in second person, addressed to her partner. There’s a possible interpretation as to why this is that I don’t want to discuss for the purpose of spoilers, but even taken at face value, it’s a poignant reminder that despite their unwavering commitment to their work, nurses are all individuals with their own lives, loves and losses to contend with. Just as they aren’t given ample opportunity to deal with work related issues, their insane schedules leave little room to handle personal problems either.
The writing style is interesting and I think it will split opinion. Glass employs a lot of exaggerated metaphors but there are beautiful passages that read like prose poetry. In any other context, I would agree with those who will undoubtedly feel the book is overwritten. Here, the almost cloying prose mirrors the heavy atmosphere and the increasingly hypnotic, otherworldly tone of the narrative. The best way I can describe it is that it felt to me like quicksand, pulling you in the more you resisted; a perfect metaphor in its own right for Laura’s relentless routine, her deteriorating mental health, and her inescapable fate.
While I can see this not working quite as well for everyone, I have been completely unable to shake the way this book made me feel. It offers a compelling narrative and a sympathetic heroine sure to resonate deeply in these strange times, but its impact, nuance, and perfectly pitched ambiguity transcend current events and invite further analysis well beyond the page. The longer I sit with it, the more impressed I am by the skill that was necessary to pull off what Glass has achieved with this slight, singular novel.
You can pick up a copy of Rest and Be Thankful by clicking here.