Think City Upon a Hill ideals and The Scarlet Letter-style misogyny and you’ll have a pretty good idea of this sly debut novel, which scarily hints that, since the 19th century, perhaps not a whole lot has changed ... There’s plenty to mull over between the puzzling fowl, the classroom dynamics and our complicated protagonist’s eerie ability to better intuit how to police her young female charges than Samuel can. Best of all is Beams’s tone: ironic and arch when relaying the spirited optimism of Samuel’s precious experiments, urgent and sinister when depicting their nightmarish outcomes. Astoundingly original, this impressive debut belongs on the shelf with your Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler collections.
The Illness Lesson...is an astonishing book. Its opening paragraph establishes tone, and that tone is notable: a mix of closely observed physical gesture and spiritual abstraction ... The novel’s plot is slowly paced but with a gathering horror and in the Gothic mode ... There’s enough suspense and mystery engendered—What to make of those beautiful and vengeful birds?—so the plot-twist of the ending should be kept a surprise. Suffice it to say that Beams shows a kind of mastery in yoking the natural to the surreal and linking grief and fear to rage.
The Illness Lesson takes the theme of transformation to new heights by combining historical fact with deeply engaging character study. The result is haunting in its loveliness and empowering in its call for the liberation of women’s minds and bodies ... The Illness Lesson combines the feminine camaraderie found in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women with the simmering anger of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s proto-feminist short story 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' and the result is both savagely acute in its portrayal of misogyny and tenderly hopeful in its trajectory. Ms. Beams writes beautifully as well as passionately, which will leave readers moved—if not a little anxious to see what such a promising author does next.
... part horror, part case study and — I mean this as a compliment — part feminist polemic ... Reading The Illness Lesson is like watching someone with superior intelligence work out a proof. If I felt a tinge of sorrow that its characters did not necessarily surprise me, the satisfaction in seeing a problem so flawlessly worked out was a worthy substitute ... The fog literally gets under their skin, and by the end of the novel, it also got under mine.
... provocative ... Beams excels in the details of this prescription. The sections on symptoms and their causes expose archaic misinformation and enforced misogyny ... Despite its finely wrought prose and incisive dialogue, The Illness Lesson is often overburdened by its obvious message and its telegraphed plot. Nevertheless, it is a scathing indictment of early toxic masculinity, a measured diatribe against male-dominated medical and educational institutions ... Ultimately, it is a blistering condemnation of a patriarchal society which would deter the empowerment of independent female thinking. It also suggests that sometimes a bird is just a bird. Except when it’s not.
... haunting ... Beams has proved adept at conjuring a macabre, slightly off-kilter world. Those elements are on display in this book, too, but it is unsettling to realize that the most troubling details are rooted not in fiction but historical facts. Beams deals with them unflinchingly, creating a feminist parable that, while often difficult to read, is deeply worthwhile.
The past is a clever place from which to discuss modern preoccupations around ownership, identity and the body ... In the present-day narrative, a handful of young women choose to attend the elite boarding school. Initially well drawn and vibrant, most of these characters sadly fade to obscurity, which is a particular shame given the subject matter of the book. The problem is one of overloading – Caroline’s mother’s back story, and the mystery of her death, is given too much prominence ... Beams’ depiction of the treatment of women at the hands of men – even supposedly enlightened men – recalls The Fever by Megan Abbott. There are echoes of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, too. Beams keeps us guessing as to the girls’ culpability, though a rushed ending sweeps them off stage, choosing instead to focus on Caroline’s story ... The Illness Lesson is a colourful, memorable story about women’s minds and bodies, and the time-honoured tradition of doubting both.
... unusual and transporting ... This is Alcott meets Shirley Jackson, with a splash of Margaret Atwood. It’s dark, quirky and even titillating, in a somewhat appalling way ... a series of creepy events and phenomena that balance on the edge between realism and ghost story.
This masterfully considered if uneven study of gender and society cramps readers into the quarters of a 19th-century New England school for girls ... Clare Beams’ cool, cutting prose hypnotically evokes the oppression of female bodies and minds, though her rushed conclusion feels less vivid than frenetic ... B+.
... expertly blends 19th-century and modern diction ... Steering [her] protagonist toward liberation, [Beams] seem to suggest that an honest reckoning with misogyny might produce not only solidarity, but also change.
... luminous ... This suspenseful and vividly evocative tale expertly explores women’s oppression as well as their sexuality through the eyes of a heroine who is sometimes maddening, at other times sympathetic, and always wholly compelling and beautifully rendered.
... daring ... Though there is a fantastical thread about a flock of mysterious, aggressive, blood-red birds that doesn’t fit well with the otherwise plausible plot, Beams excels in her depiction of Caroline, an intriguingly complex character, and in her depiction of the school, which allows the reader a clear view of changing gender roles in the period, with parallels to today’s sexual abuse scandals. This powerful and resonant feminist story will move readers.
Beams successfully shapes the characters who tell the story, capturing the mores of the times and delving deeply into the psychological aspects of the situation. The underlying secret creates a tension that is resolved only in the final pages. Readers of general fiction will enjoy.
Beams takes risk after risk in this, her first novel, and they all seem to pay off. Her ventriloquizing of the late 19th century, her delicate-as-lace sentences, and the friction between the unsettling thinking of the period and its 21st century resonances make for an electrifying read ... A satisfyingly strange novel from the one-of-a-kind Beams.