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Love in the time of the Spanish flu epidemic.

British author James devotes her debut to an early-20th-century pandemic that is estimated to have killed 230,000 in the U.K.; 675,000 in the U.S.; and possibly between 50 and 100 million worldwide. However, her carefully researched canvas is deliberately small, charting the fortunes of a narrow group in London linked by family ties and social connections. Undertaker Henry Speake begins to fear the scale of the “plague” unfolding after reading a letter written by one of its victims, Dr. Thomas Wey, who tried to alert the authorities to the need to close the ports and rein in troop movements—World War I is drawing to its close—as a means of limiting the contagion. Wey also noted that the illness was felling a disproportionately large number of young people. Speake’s job inevitably exposes the rising tide of the crisis, as does the work of widowed teacher Allen Thompson. With the children rapidly falling sick, the school is closed and Allen, now befriended by Speake, shares his anxieties while trying to tend to her deluded sister and other suffering folk. But for Allen, associating with Speake is “consorting with a tradesman,” which earns disapproval on all sides. Not much happens other than the spread of disease, death and disorder. There are many scenes of grief, tragedy, poverty and helplessness, as society trembles on the brink of breakdown and doctors, vicars and other ordinary souls grapple with the practicalities of the day, while the government contributes very little.

A curiosity—sharp glimpses of human nature scattered over a detailed period panorama.

Pub Date: April 17th, 2007
ISBN: 0-312-36444-X
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2007