Wanda is the newest of the tubercular inhabitants of the Hessian State Hospital for Children, where, just after WW II, few patients leave cured--or alive. Her mates are P.B., in a body cast; Carla, who writes chain-letter-style invitations to men to come visit her; and the ""Empress of China,"" storyteller extraordinaire. Together, the four endure ongoing medical treatments, await family visiting days, and plan their escape to the outside world; separately, they face misdiagnosis, the indignities of illness, and (in at least one case) death. Some readers may labor over the demanding style, alternating between gritty, relatively ""true"" tales from the TB ward on the one hand, and the Empress's eerie, metaphorical stories on the other. Degens boldly attempts to carry readers away from the solid ground of traditional narration: her transitions between the real and the imagined keep the reader in a state of slippery discomfort. Yet each page reveals a more complex, compelling insight into the impulse for life as the occupants of the ward strip away bleak vanities and reach for the essential. Rewarding, sophisticated reading.