The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

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Distinctive, haunting, irresistible, The Illness Lesson is an intensely vivid debut about women’s minds and bodies, and the time-honoured tradition of doubting both.

However, The Illness Lesson was one that left me wanting. It also left me quite anxious to reach the end. :-(

Damn! It was such a highly anticipated one too, I mean, LOOK at that spectacular cover! The premise sounded so promising!

I thought it might dive deeper, or provide more depth as we moved through the story, but I never got the feeling like it was getting “there”, reaching out to grab me or give me the feeling that I wouldn’t be able to put it down. Sadly, I felt the opposite and would look at it with regret, anxious for it to end. Truly such a sad feeling for me! It wasn’t supposed to be like this!

But I cannot deny I was only ever left wanting, wanting and struggling to find its purpose. Was it meant to be creepy? Leave me unsettled? There were so many mentions of these birds – the trilling hearts – but it felt senseless to me, it definitely didn’t give off a sense of danger or creepiness.

Also often mentioned (indeed each chapter began with a quote taken from this book) was a book entitled, The Darkening Glass by Miles Pearson. Miles Pearson was a man that was a part of this original “Birch Hill” group (something as well where I felt a distinct lack of background discussion about). Miles Pearson was a man that had a love affair with Caroline’s mother, therefore this book was banished from their home. When the daughter of Pearson wishes to attend the new school Caroline’s father has created, she brings the book with her, and entices the other girls in the school with it, seemingly trying to get a rise out of Caroline and her father. This attempt at giving this book power over the girls’ behaviours was a weird and surface aspect to the story. Therefore, I only ever felt that Eliza’s strange fits of behaviour were manipulative and evoked a mob mentality among the other girls, desperate as they were to follow Eliza.

Caroline alone can speak on behalf of the students, but only if she summons the confidence to question everything she’s ever learnt. Does she have the strength to confront the all-male, all-knowing authorities of her world and protect the young women in her care?

I simply didn’t feel this came through with as much strength as I thought it would – this sense of control over women’s minds and bodies. I don’t think the depth was there overall to truly give this sense that this was going to be this compelling piece of confrontational reading about male-dominated environments and a fight for women’s voices. It didn’t take me there at all, it also didn’t take me to an unsettled space (if those birds were supposed to bring me to that sense – it truly didn’t work).

So….2.5 stars is what I’ll rate this one. Unfortunately.

I planned on using this book for the Reading Women 2020 Challenge for the task about a woman with a disability (which could be mental illness). But I don’t think this fits here for this task after closing the pages. I didn’t perceive this book to be about a woman with a mental illness, so I’ll need to find something different for this particular task.