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This Time of Dying Hardcover – April 17, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
British writer James assays the impact of the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic on a disparate lot of Londoners in her ambitious debut novel. Told through the overlapping perspectives of an omniscient narrator and the protagonist, a London undertaker, the novel probes the street-level, personal toll of a contagion responsible for perhaps 100 million deaths worldwide. In October 1918, as WWI ebbs, Dr. Thomas Wey falls dead in a London street while trying to post a letter to local health officials warning of the coming epidemic. The attending undertaker, Henry Speake, discovers the letter, reads it and decides to keep it instead of posting it—an impulsive decision that roils him as the epidemic unfolds. As Henry weighs his culpability, his profession puts him at the center of the epidemic. Besides Henry, the characters—from the agoraphobic Lily Bird, who retreats to her bed to avoid germs, to the cynical and melancholy local physician, Dr. Lionel Tite—are eccentric, but not especially memorable. The novel's abrupt conclusion can be seen as either a flaw or a powerful reminder that death is ever untimely. (Apr.)
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"James graphically describes a plague that wiped out families and overwhelmed the war-weakened infrastructure. However, the true terrain of the novelist is arguably the response of her characters to their afflictions. Here, James's isolated protagonists prepare the ground admirably for their individual witness and response to the calamity. A finely written and affecting novel." ---Guardian (UK)
"This restrained and unnerving novel gains strength like the virus it describes. . . . As the crisis peaks, class expectations crumble and an unlikely love story develops. . . . James registers the tiny details of suffering and the book ends almost like a fever breaking, showing that such a scourge can randomly take out anything in its path, leaving behind misery, but also human dignity." ---Time Out London (four stars)
"James skillfully conveys the suppressed panic and claustrophobia induced by the sudden and deadly prevalence of the disease. Yet members of the local community still find time to disapprove of [Henry and Allen] for their association. This is a muted but moving novel about the persistence of the ordinary during extraordinary times." ---Financial Times
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Top customer reviews
At the same time as conventional society is crumbling through the combined impacts of war and influenza, class distinctions remain important. Henry Speake, the undertaker, is the central character in this novel. His friendship with a widow, Mrs Allen Thompson, causes them both considerable social grief because of class differences.
This is not a light read but, once started, I found it very hard to put down. This is Ms James's first novel, and it is beautifully presented. Amongst the pain and suffering are some wonderful examples of humanity and the glimmerings of hope for a better future.