Rest and Be Thankful
By Emma Glass
Bloomsbury Publishing: Dec. 1, 2020
Hardcover, 160 pages, $18.00
Few stories could be more timely during this pandemic year than this slim but wrenching novel. Laura is a nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit at a hospital in London. She works the night shift, when the world outside the ICU slows and calms but her world intensifies physically and emotionally. The darkness outside the windows often matches that inside the young patients’ rooms. Yet there is a light emanating from the spirit and tireless work ethic of the doctors and, especially, the nurses.
The story focuses on Laura’s care for three patients: a baby named Danny who is dying, a young girl named Florence who has cancer, and a boy named Buddy. She becomes attached to her patients and their young parents.
At the same time, Laura’s marriage is falling apart from various causes, including the exhausting nature of her job and her overnight shift (which, admittedly, she prefers). Glass gives us an intimate look at her domestic life, which often consists of nothing more than scraping together a small meal and sleeping. She is not taking good care of herself, and no one else is either. And her sleep is often disrupted by dreams involving water, swimming in the ocean, and occasionally drowning.
Rest and Be Thankful is a close first-person narrative that alternates between the lyrical and the matter-of-fact. Much of its power comes from the details that convey the heartbreak and heroics of her work. When Samantha, a student nurse, sees folded black towels at the nursing station, she asks what they’re for.
“They’re not black, at least we don’t call them black. They are dark towels,” Laura tells her. She continues writing up her patient notes. Her supervisor, Jennifer, picks up the response. “We have them and we hope we never have to use them. We have them because our patients have a low platelet count. They could hemorrhage, and rather than let the parents see the bleeding, see sopping saturated soaking-wet red towels, we use the dark ones.” When Laura looks up, she sees “no red in Samantha’s cheeks, her face has drained, she is white and silent.”
The fever dream fades on occasion for tender scenes involving a young doctor who is smitten with Laura but shy and tentative around her. And the relationships of the nurses, like soldiers engaged in trench warfare, are full of rough-edged interactions and deep empathy. Laura soldiers on, as she searches for a way through burnout and attempts to rebuild her life outside the hospital.
Although Rest and Be Thankful was written before the pandemic struck, it provides a close-up view of what ICU nurses do, often at great personal cost, because they are determined above all to be useful.