Book review

In “Rest and Be Thankful” by Emma Glass, readers shadow a nurse, burned-out and numbed by sleeplessness, whose kindness is taken advantage of by seemingly everyone nearby: her colleagues, her patients, her boyfriend.

Glass, who also works as a nurse in London, tells this story in poignant vignettes and anchors this slim novel in the hospital workplace where the protagonist, who doubles as the first-person narrator, works in the newborn department. Though one might be inclined to associate this sector with joy and the miracle of birth, we anxiously bear witness as tragedy looms and dark phantoms lurk.

This tone is set from the very first pages. Beginning (and perhaps ending) at the mouth of the tunnel between dreaming and waking life, the narrator appears exhausted, mildly delirious, and prone to nightmares. “What happens if you die in a dream?” the narrator asks, then answers. “The water in my lungs weighs me down. Nothing in me but cold water and darkness.” This dream world — one marked by discomforting cold, wetness, shades of blue and a fear of drowning — leaks into the fictional universe.

Emma Glass, Bloomsbury Circus, 160 pp., $18

While there is no global pandemic to speak of, a series of unfortunate events nevertheless cascade onto the slackened shoulders of our protagonist. A newborn child in critical condition worsens overnight; her whiskey-drunk boyfriend abruptly ends their relationship; while out running, a crow attacks the protagonist’s head, an obvious allusion to Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

“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,” the protagonist writes as a doctor colleague consoles her and treats her crow wounds. “We did not forget but we were too busy being useful.”

We come to learn the narrator’s caring disposition extends well beyond her professional life. Empathetic to seemingly everyone except herself, those around her seem to take a straw to the protagonist’s emotional reservoir, sucking her dry.

Soon, the slide into misfortune becomes a delirious tumble — Was that a ghost? — as the narrator becomes ever more deprived of sleep, warmth and empathy. Eventually, this begs the question of what lies at the bottom of this frictionless descent. Rest? And, if so, is this rest restorative, as is the case with newborns, “To sleep so deeply — it warms me to see rest reviving the imperfect body.” Or is it an ominous final rest of death? Or is it simply bottomless, a permanent tumultuous free fall?

Glass conjures this fictional atmosphere very successfully, but once introduced to this tone and atmosphere, the plot never diverges. Instead, the narrative plods on — the steady line of a heart monitor without a heartbeat.

When there’s no real conflict at the level of plot to push readers forward, then that places additional pressure on style and diction at the sentence level. What begins as an enticing, albeit mute, style quickly loses its luster. The prose is, at times, so purply one cringes. “Her skin is pale and flecked with freckles … perfectly settled skin-kissing sun rays.” An abundance of gimmicky tricks of alliteration (“fake flowery fragrance”), rhyme (“I am slick with sick,” “Cells shifting, invisible knitting”), and repetition (“Over-stuffed with stuffed bears”) certainly greases the reading experience, but does so at the expense of meaningful stylistic variation. Such devices are central to nursery rhymes, bedtime tales and other children’s stories, which, given the setting of the novel, is a sensible inflection. There is surely a way Glass could have elevated these devices into something literary, but she defaults to them so frequently that they remain elementary.

Still, reading “Rest and Be Thankful” glides as easy as any Netflix limited series. And perhaps that’s part of the problem. Perhaps this story would perform better as a short story, or even a novella, but was instead padded with filler content to become novel-length for marketing reasons. Novels simply sell better.