You know those books where, upon finishing, you calmly clutch them to your chest as your thoughts continue to sift through them? That was my experience of The Illness Lesson, Clare Beams’ debut novel in feminist fiction. A smooth writing style combined with a poignant narrative and a flock of mysterious red birds make up the book’s actual lesson on, as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it, female outrage.
In 1871, a forward-thinking man by the name of Samuel Hood envisions an experiment: a school for girls where they study everything boys do. His daughter Caroline and apprentice David join in the venture as teachers and together they try to prove that the female mind is capable of much more than their society prescribes. Unfortunately, a strange illness hits the girls and disrupts their progress. Want to know more? This book review is here to help.
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Style and Mystery
Caroline Hood is the narrator. Her calm intelligence drives the tone, but so does her evolution from Samuel’s companion and first successful experiment to a strong self-aware woman. Her sight, both keen and naive, picks out wonderful details of the girls, birds, house, and situations.
And then there are the mysteries. The birds, dubbed ‘trilling hearts’, are a species never seen before. They flock to the Hood farm and Samuel considers them a good sign as he prepares to make his dream experiment a reality. His daughter, however, is uncertain. The birds, among other things, echo with her mother, who died from epilepsy when Caroline was a child. These trilling hearts bring all sorts of enigmas to the plot.
Finally, there’s the matter of The Darkening Glass, a famous book written by a former colleague of Samuel’s and containing troubling references to the Hoods and their home. This text has its own haunting influence on almost everyone involved. So words, ghosts, and scarlet feathers spin a fascinating nest for familiar themes of feminist fiction.
1800s Female Illness and Education
The Illness Lesson brings up many frustrating facts about how women were perceived back then, which also inspires a comparison with modern norms. The fact that the book’s messages still strike such nerves shows how relevant its feminist issues still are. The narrative tangles with social and cognitive expectations of women, as well as medical standards and practices, specifically surrounding hysteria… The novel is about the integrity and ownership of the female body as much as the mind.
Overall, this great modern example of feminist fiction talks about change. Does it fit? Will it work? Will it be opposed and why? How can it be done better? By bringing together several aspects of injustice towards women, The Illness Lesson is enlightening and emotive. An intricate tapestry of facts, fictions, and symbolisms displays the process and pains of empowerment. At the same time, Clare Beams invites the 21st-century reader to ponder all these ideas of femininity alongside Caroline, her students, and the people in her life, both men and women.
The Illness Lesson masterfully mixes eerie mystery with timeless human matters – morality, equality, change, inquisitiveness. If you enjoy subtle but gripping fiction, whether of a feminist or historical nature, this brilliant debut novel is an experience not to be missed.
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Want more feminist reads? Here are some suggestions.