Clare Beams, The Illness Lesson

The Illness Lesson is a quiet, eerie novel about a women’s school gone awry in nineteenth-century New England. Caroline is the adult daughter of Samuel Hood, an essayist and educator whose work has attracted some devotees, including David, a former soldier and Caroline’s crush, who comes to live with the Hoods and teach at their experimental girls’ school. When one spirited young pupil, Eliza, begins to show signs of a mysterious illness, the men invite a doctor who begins a humiliating and violating course of treatment. Soon, all of the girls fall ill, including Caroline, who struggles all at once with the sickness, her responsibility towards the girls, her feelings for David, and her growing awareness of her father’s tyranny, a tyranny made all the worse by his convictions that he is doing the right thing. At the same time, the natural world sends its own strange omens in the form of trilling hearts, rapacious red birds who settle in the woods around the school and build a series of nests out of the ailing girls’ things. 

Beams is really good at conveying a Gothic mood through description and exposition. A dress is “splayed across David’s desk chair as if it had fainted away with passion” (113). Caroline wonders about a rival school teacher’s response to an impudent comment, imagining an “underground chamber in the center of the classroom springing open, the offender fed to the dark mouth of impudence” (63). She is equally good at conveying unstated feelings between characters. David waits until the last possible moment to tell Caroline that he has a wife, Sophia, and they form an uneasy relationship: “[Caroline] heard herself and laughed. Sophia laughed with her. The moment was companionable until they caught it being that way” (170). 

The book jacket copy compares Beams to contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, but this novel put me more in mind of the Romantic and Victorian Gothic traditions. The schoolgirls’ secret, collective yearning for David is reminiscent of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), in which a boarding school of female students all admire Dr. John, a love interest of the teacher and protagonist. The girls at Hunt’s school also take delight in reading a forbidden romance, and are roundly criticized for it. “‘It’s certainly a very exciting book,’” says their sinister physician, Hawkins, “‘Full of all sorts of alarming occurrences, and of course a physical languishing too…. I could see how such a book might seem…suggestive to all of you” (182-183). This idea of sensational books causing female hysteria was often centered on Gothic fiction, and is charmingly satirized in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817). For all these reasons, I see the book as sort of neo-Victorian: a clear commentary on gender prohibitions that uses the nineteenth century to think through these issues. 

This is a novel that sneaks up on you. It’s gently paced, but that’s one of its strengths: I admire how Beams builds up a mood of dread in the chapters that lead up to the climax. My main quibble might be with the recurring appearances of the trilling hearts–the birds seemed so clearly to function as omens or commentary that their appearance took me out of the story a bit. 

A smart, ominous work of contemporary literary fiction with Gothic flair. 

Elisabeth Thomas, Catherine House

Elisabeth Thomas, Catherine House (New York: Custom House, 2020)

I’ve been a fan of campus novels ever since I discovered John Williams’s Stoner back in 2014, and over the years I’ve devoured a few of them: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House, like these novels, is in part about the cultish insularity of academic culture. But in Catherine House the campus is not just a backdrop for egomaniacal or depressed or sexually frustrated academics. It is actually about the campus, about the psychological pull of a place, the tyranny and pleasure of decadent buildings and lavish common areas and hushed, overgrown gardens. 

This might seem like a strange premise for a book that is being marketed as literary suspense, a genre based, in part, on the anticipated revelations of plot. And there is a plot to this book: Ines, our first-person narrator, runs from a torrid and violent past into the refuge of Catherine House, an elite, controversial liberal arts school in rural Pennsylvania. Full  tuition and living expenses are covered for accepted students, but there’s a hitch: all students must cut ties to their past selves, including their families and loved ones, and no one from outside the community can enter. Soon, Ines begins to learn why: Catherine House is secretly conducting bizarre experiments on students using “plasma pins,” small needles that sutre broken objects and people together. Under the sway of the pins, the students grow content, attached, even addicted to the school. The story comes to a climax when Ines, after repeated imprisonments in an isolated  tower, becomes determined to escape. 

Catherine House is a slow, steamy burn, and the narrator, Ines, may feel flat to some readers in search of a character they can root for. She’s arch and withdrawn and reveals very little about her past, although what little she does reveal–a sordid evening, an accidental death–is harrowing. As I read, I started to think of her flatness as a consequence of living at Catherine House: she’s been emptied of her past and made to join the artful Gothic decay of the campus, to merge with its faded curtains and patterned wallpapers and mossy courtyards. “I was there,” Ines writes, “an infinite object tessellating into the house’s infinite architecture” (260). She is like the triptychs and altarpieces hanging in the school’s dusty galleries, the depictions of praying saints: “Their misery was flamboyant and gorgeous” (204). 

The antique ruin of the school contrasts with the characters’ desires to stay young forever, in a kind of collegiate Neverland, with endless supplies of wine and tea. The characters have a morbid fear of getting older. Ines’s boyfriend, Theo, wonders what Ines was like as a little girl; a crucial character is nicknamed Baby; a friend of Ines, Diego, worries that “someday I’ll look around and realize forty years have passed and no one can see me” (229). This fear of growing older, of change, slowly begins to merge, in perverse ways, with the school’s plasma research. 

Catherine House is a blend of genres: a Gothic novel, a campus novel, even a coming-of-age, in a way. The writing is lucid and highly readable, and Thomas has a painter’s eye for visual detail. I’d recommend it for fans of literary Gothic and readers who enjoy setting as much as plot. 

Sara Sligar, Take Me Apart

Archival obsession meets the #MeToo movement in this thoughtful debut. The novel follows an ex-journalist, Kate Aitken, as she creates an archive from the work of a famous photographer, Miranda Brand, who died in Callinas, California in mysterious circumstances.

Kate’s own path to this work also unfolds in mysterious circumstances. We learn that she is fired from her job in New York after filing harassment charges against her assaultive boss, but other aspects of her past, including her mental health breakdown, are revealed slowly, as she grows closer to Theo, her new boss and Miranda’s son. The narrative alternates between a close third-person point of view that focuses on Kate, and first-person excerpts from Miranda’s diary. Gradually, Kate becomes obsessed with the puzzling circumstances of Miranda’s death, and she neglects the management of her bipolar disorder. All this comes to a height as she begins to suspect her lover, Theo, of murdering his own mother. 

I love a book that can blend genre elements like mystery and suspense with more academic or aesthetic musings on art. Sligar’s writing is accessible and compelling, and she tackles important issues like mental health, sexual violence, abuse, and gaslighting. I thought the passages about Kate’s deteriorating mental health were especially well handled. We learn that her manic episodes go undetected for a while in New York because “her social circle prized erratic behavior” (264). That resonated with me as an academic, because my profession, like others I’m sure, similarly values obsessive work, not prioritizing one’s well-being, etc. 

I was a bit surprised that some of the Goodreads reviews for this novel strongly preferred the Miranda chapters to the Kate ones. I enjoyed the Miranda chapters but feel it can be challenging to depict the figure of the tormented, talented artist in fresh ways. That said, Sligar does upend this Romantic trope by making her artist a woman, and the depiction of the abuse she faces is heartrending. The themes of isolation and male tyranny, and the trope of the found manuscript, give the Miranda passages a bit of a contemporary Gothic flair. The rich strands in this novel are irreducible to any single genre or mode, but the book might have special appeal to fans of literary suspense and stories about mental health and feminism. I’m excited to see what Sligar publishes next.  

By the way, I learned about this book from the newsletter by the awesome folks over at Mystery Lover’s Bookstore in Oakmont, PA! 

Mary Kay McBrayer, America’s First Female Serial Killer

America’s first female serial killer was a poor Irish nurse named Honora Kelley, later known as Jane Toppan. She poisoned at least thirty-one victims in Victorian-era Boston. 

If that comes as a surprise to you, you’re in good company. As Mary Kay McBrayer writes, notorious murderers like Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden have been studied in great detail, but Toppan remains relatively unknown, in part because she was poor and Irish, a hardworking and unvalued laborer who her patients and bosses overlooked. “The fact that someone so unimportant and unwanted could commit so many murders without being caught was, basically, embarrassing,” McBrayer writes (14). 

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The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

I was a student in elementary school when Reagan declared his War on Drugs. At my small Atlanta school, I remember, even then, how this war came to shape my earliest impressions of crime. Other students wore D.A.R.E. tee shirts and our teachers and parents warned us about accepting drugs from strangers. Commercials were filled with slogans and taglines like “Just Say No,” “I Learned It from Watching You,” and, of course, the famous, and much-parodied, “This Is Your Brain On Drugs” demonstration. Reports of crack, crack dealers, and crack babies filled the news. While I would go on, over many years, to learn about some of the injustices Michelle Alexander discusses in The New Jim Crow—especially the discriminatory mass incarceration of black and brown men—I admit that I had never, until I read this book, reflected enough on that early “war” that was such a formative part of my childhood education.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read this: 

“there is no truth to the notion that the War on Drugs was launched in response to crack cocaine…. Reagan officially announced the current drug war in 1982, before crack became an issue in the media or a crisis in poor black neighborhoods” (5).

And this: 

“In fact, the War on Drugs began at a time when illegal drug use was on the decline. During this same time period, however, a war was declared, causing arrests and convictions for drug offenses to skyrocket, especially among people of color” (6). 

Such challenges are typical of this book, which presents, in swift prose and formidable detail, its thesis that America’s system of mass incarceration is a restyling of Jim Crow for an era that sees itself as colorblind (11). Alexander’s goal is not to downplay the devastating effects of drug use but rather to highlight how the War on Drugs was a targeted and highly racialized media campaign intended to jail black men for minor drug offenses and to mobilize the resentment of poor white voters who resisted the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Alexander also situates the drug crisis in the context of globalization and deindustrialization, which devastated poor inner-city neighborhoods, leaving few viable employment options and increasing the incentive to sell drugs (51). With massive amounts of federal funding and the militarization of police forces in subsequent years, the War on Drugs was born as a new version of Jim Crow for a post-Civil Rights society that shunned overt racism for a discourse of colorblindness. By appealing to “law and order,” the “Proponents of racial hierarchy found they could install a new racial caste system without violating the law or the new limits of acceptable public discourse” (40), and this emphasis on law and order was also taken up by subsequent presidents as they relentlessly armed and funded the police. 

Each chapter in this magisterial book builds on this central claim, focusing on five different aspects of mass incarceration: the American history of racial caste, the systems of arrest and incarceration, the stark racial disparities that characterize the criminal justice system, the stigma and discrimination faced by people who have been arrested, and the normalization and denial that surrounds the imprisonment of black men. A final chapter offers some rousing suggestions for a new racial justice movement that challenges our society’s underlying assumptions of colorblindness. Throughout, Alexander offers evidence ranging from stories of individual cases to research studies to analyses of Supreme Court rulings. 

It’s hard to summarize a book that is so powerfully constructed and informative. Alexander meticulously documents the myriad racial and economic injustices of the War on Drugs, including the startling fact that, in the mid-70s, before the war started, some criminologists were predicting the end of the prison system (8) and that between 1980 and 2000, the number of incarcerated people went from around 300,000 to over 2 million (60). She debunks media stereotypes about race and drug activity, showing that white youth are the most likely of any racial group to possess or sell drugs, but are much less likely to go to prison for it (99). Alexander also uncovers the various ways the criminal justice system perpetuates this discrimination,  showing how the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections and use of stop-and-frisk policies and pretext stops are used to profile and arrest black people. 

By the way, Alexander also challenges many of the arguments used in favor of law and order policing and anticipates counterarguments, which makes this an important book not just to be read but to be discussed with others. For example, some might contend that violent crime is responsible for our nation’s large prison population, but Alexander cites numerous studies to show that incarceration rates rise even when violent crime rates are down (101). 

The final chapter is meant as a call to debate and action, inviting readers to—among other things—talk frankly about race and to build a movement to end mass incarceration with the understanding that it is a racial caste system, not a crime-control system (236). She closes with a powerful quote from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it” (qtd. on 261). 

This is a masterful work: it taught me many things I did not know and gave me evidence and language to better understand and discuss things I do know. It should be required reading at every university in America.