Sunday 16 December 2007

59. The Children's Hospital

This was yet another of my cartload of birthday books, a cartload I don't think I'll be finished wading through when the cartload of Festivus books has finished trickling in.

Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital is a sort of surreal tale in which a cataclysmic storm floods the earth; the only thing that appears to survive is a children's hospital and all the incredibly ill children and worn out doctors on board. The doings of the ship are noted by a benevolent but powerless recording angel (the narrator) and the preserving angel, the latter of which initially appears to be doing just that but who in fact is able to preserve only the comforts and appearances of normalcy not life itself.

Later, two destroying angels arrive but before they do, the main character, Jemma, becomes simultaneously pregnant and able to miraculously heal all the children. Heal she does and for a space, life is distinctly un-hospital like as doctors become teachers, patients becomes students, and hope infuses all hearts.

This respite is short-lived, however, for with the bringing on board of the two destroying angels (disguised simply as mysterious drifters in the water), the adults on board begin to fall prey to a plague that the ever more powerful and pregnant Jemma can do nothing to stop. All concludes with Jemma being the last surviving adult, and surviving only to give birth to her son and to witness the hospital's final discovery of new land. The children leave the boat, innocent and cleansed by the sacrifice of the ship's adult inhabitants, and the angels depart.

Now, this seems all quite heavily allegorical and it is, but not in an obtrusive way. Adrian's gift I think is making this just read like a story - the characters and what happens to them are never forced to fit into or highlight the tale's allegorical aspects. Indeed, if one knew nothing about Christian mythology, I think this would still be a very enjoyable book.

The long scene in which Jemma "harrows" all 700 of the hospital's sick children into wellness is truly show-stopping and the daily interactions between the doctors and the children as they adjust to wellness is incredibly interesting and thoughtful. That said, I found the final third of the book dragged somewhat, and that the recording angel's final revelation of what it all meant was perhaps a little too rushed.

The Children's Hospital was recommended to me by a former student of mine at Queen's, who also a long time ago recommended Tom Robbins' Skinny Legs and All, which was a seriously fun read.

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