In the heart of the post-Civil War Massachusetts countryside, Samuel Hood, his daughter Caroline, and their friend David decide to set up a school for girls. They call it Trilling Heart, named for the mysterious red birds that appear to haunt the grounds of the house. The birds are not new - they appeared 20 years earlier, just before Caroline's mother died of an epileptic fit.
This is not Samuel's first attempt to run a school, the previous one having failed disastrously when the land went barren and the livestock died. The pieces appear perfectly poised for something horrific to happen again.
Before long, the girls begin to experience an illness of their own. Verbal tics, bright rashes, and tremors all manifest themselves. A dubious doctor declares that their illness is not physical, and is instead a form of hysteria. But Caroline is not so sure, particularly as she has begun to experience some of the same symptoms herself…
As a premise, The Illness Lesson is mesmerising. Clare Beams' writing is a revelation - succinct and efficient where she needs to be, yet generous enough in her descriptions of the house, its grounds, and the birds to create a satisfying sense of Gothic dread. The novel builds languorously and tantalisingly towards the outbreak of illness, but in such a way that you are never quite sure what is real and what is imaginary.
This is echoed in the thoughts of Caroline herself, who - despite suffering from the illness - cannot decide whether to trust her own perceptions. As a commentary on how frequently women's illnesses and pain were and still are dismissed, it hits close to home.
To say more about how the illness plays out - and how it is treated - would be to spoil what the novel builds towards. It is true, however, that much of the enjoyment of The Illness Lesson comes from the atmosphere and tension that Beams builds, rather than in how this is resolved. At 266 pages, it is a very slight book, and at times it felt that Beams would have done better with another 50 or even a hundred pages to flesh the ending out - as it is, it feels a little rushed, with no space to expand on some of the most beguiling elements of the plot. An example of this is the parallel narrative between Miles Pearson (a fictional novelist who satirised Samuel's failed school, recasting him as the lecherous uncle to Louisa, a heroine clearly based on Caroline's mother) and Beams herself, whose conception of Caroline and Samuel is in turn clearly based on 19th century novelist Louisa May Alcott and her schoolteacher father, Amos. From this standpoint alone, the novel makes an interesting companion piece to Greta Gerwig's recent adaptation of Little Women, both being modern odes of the fictional and real life of Louisa May Alcott.
The Illness Lesson is a strange novel, although its strangeness is a crucial part of its appeal. A fascinating mix of genres (the school story, body horror, paean to feminist anger), it manages to achieve all the things that the best historical fiction should: telling a new story about the past with modern resonance, while not denying the reality of the historic setting.
Although the threads of the story could have been tied together more satisfactorily, the novel is nevertheless rich and deserving; Beams is an immensely talented and imaginative writer. I am intrigued to see what she will come up with next.