Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Fever - Mary Beth Keane - Guest review

Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant to the United States in the latter years of the nineteenth century.  In many ways she was just like so many others who moved from Ireland in search of a better, more prosperous life.  The one difference between Mary and her fellow immigrants was that she was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, the first such healthy carrier to be identified by medical science and therefore a test case for the American authorities in how to treat such a risk to public health.  Working as a cook in a number of private households, Mary passed typhoid on to at least fifty individuals, of whom at least three died.  Once she had been identified by the health department as the common cause Mary was arrested and forcibly isolated at the hospital for communicable diseases on Brother North Island in New York's East River.  All in all she spent nearly three decades of her life there.

Such are the basic facts of the life of the real Mary Mallon, later known as Typhoid Mary, which form the backbone of Mary Beth Keane's novel, Fever.  For anyone even vaguely familiar with Mary Mallon's story the book's plot holds few surprises.  But for Keane the interest in Mary's story lies not in what happened, but in why it happened.  Why did Mary Mallon repeatedly flout the authorities ruling that she shouldn't work as cook, despite the fact that there was clear evidence that by doing so she was putting other people's lives at risk? Why did she risk losing her own liberty by refusing to cooperate with the public health officials, apparently ignoring compelling evidence that she was a typhoid carrier? Fever is Keane's attempt to answer these questions and is essentially a character study of a woman driven by a passion that ultimately doomed her to a sad and lonely existence. 

Mary Beth Keane's portrayal of Mary Mallon's character is presumably almost entirely fictional, but it is a well-rounded and wholly convincing portrait.  Mary is depicted as a strong-willed and independent woman, someone who wants to make her way in the world through working at what she loves best: cooking. Cooking is not only her way of showing affection for people, but more importantly she knows it's something she has a talent for  and showing off her skills makes her feel respected and valued.  When the authorities try to compel her to work as a laundress instead, so that she'll no longer pose a risk to people's health, Mary baulks at the sheer tedium of the job, but what irks her the most is that she sees it as unskilled labour, work that doesn't earn her the respect of others.  We completely understand, then, Mary's longing to return to the work she loves and that fulfills her. But her passion for cooking is her tragic flaw, since it is of course through her cooking that she passes on the typhoid bacilli, and in the end it is her inability to give up cooking that leads to her decades-long incarceration on Brother North Island.  Keane's real skill is in creating a picture of a woman who is not altogether likeable, but with whom we nevertheless sympathise despite her wilful denial of the facts.  We cannot condemn her for what she does, because Mary Mallon isn't wicked, just a flawed woman who, trapped by circumstance, makes bad decisions.  

Apart from Mary, the other key character in the book isn't Alfred, her long-term lover (important though he is in revealing the gentler side of Mary's nature); rather, it's New York City which, in its many facets, is the backdrop to almost all the key scenes in the book, from the tenements where the impoverished immigrants try to scrape a living, to the sweatshops and building sites where they work; from the first skyscrapers of the shiny new city rising from the streets, to the bleak isolation of the quarantine hospital on the inhospitable Brother North Island.  The atmosphere of this rapidly-growing melting-pot of a city at the dawn of a new era pervades the entire book and some of the details - such as the description of the men building the first skyscrapers - are just marvellous.  

All in all, then, Fever is a beautifully detailed portrait of both character and setting, and Mary Beth Keane fleshes out the bones of Mary Mallon's story in such a way that we not only understand but can even empathise with this woman driven by a terrible stroke of fate to make the wrong choices.  From the basic facts of the case it would be all to easy to demonise Mary as either woefully ignorant or selfishly deceitful, but Keane's picture of Mary is far more nuanced.  As a result I found the book to be a fascinating read that made me reassess in a new light what I already knew about Mary Mallon.  Of course we'll never know now exactly what the real Mary's motives were for repeatedly defying the authorities' instructions to her, but I thought Keane's interpretation was compellingly convincing, and quite probably not too far from the truth.  

Published by Simon & Schuster

Reviewed by Penny Tattersall - guest reviewer

Huge thanks to Penny for kindly reading and reviewing this novel for The Little Reader Library


  1. Though I am aware of 'Typhoid Mary' I know very little of her. A book I'm sure I'd find fascinating,I'm hoping our library will have a copy.

    1. Same here Tracy, so it was great to read Penny's thoughts on this one. I hope you'll enjoy it too.

  2. This book is already on my wish list, but I'm giving it a higher priority now. Thanks for the review!

    1. Thanks for commenting on Penny's review JoAnn, and I hope you find this one an interesting read too.

  3. Wonderful informative review. I am adding it to my TBR straight away.
    -Dilettantish Reader

  4. I am a little late in commenting but wanted to say thank you for a great review and I love this cover!


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