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Book Review: The Smallest Thing by Lisa Manterfield

Emmott Syddall wants nothing more than to leave the tiny English village of Eyam, that has been home to countless generations of her family. She’s desperate to escape to London, with her boyfriend Ro, though Ro seems more reluctant to leave. Emmott’s father wants her to stay, eventually taking over the family tour business. Before she can leave, however, disaster strikes in the form of a deadly plague, and the quarantine that follows. Trapped in Eyam, Emmott, and her fellow villagers struggle to survive. This is a trying time, bringing out the true nature of each person. For Emmott’s, it is a time of intense growth, as the dross in her life is burned away in the fires of plague. Through it all, Emmott loses people to betrayal and death alike, but she finds herself, and her true calling, and a new friend and ally in the young Red Cross relief worker named Aiden.

I enjoy stories of pandemics and epidemics. These are among the most terrifying of the ‘man Vs nature’ category. These stories speak to our deep, ancestral memory of the great slate-wipers, and the fear and knowledge that they will happen again. The reminder that humans really aren’t top of the chain, and that death is random, an implacable reality that can strike any of us, at any time. There is no true villain, for virii simply do what they do. There’s no malice involved.

Manterfield captured the feelings of despair, fear, and rage quarantine can engender. The still-healthy are trapped with the sick and dying, forced to watch loved ones suffer and die, all the while knowing they could be next. They are watched over by dread spectres, people in Haz-Mat suits, designed to protect them. Just seeing these suits often creates such feelings of fear because you know it means something bad has happened. It might not be contagion, but it’s never a good sign. That fear is captured here. These people in their suits are as terrifying to the Eyam residents as their predecessors were to plague victims. Plague doctors’ get-ups were designed to block contagion as well, though the full grasp of transmission was lacking then. (I find them quite innovative for the times).



I loved how the reader’s emotions were drawn out via comparisons, such as death being an off switch on a remote whose batteries are then removed and thrown away, and through beautiful description.

  ‘The camera pans across the rows of stone cottages, the vivid hanging baskets, the church, the bus shelter, the school, and the tea rooms, but slashes of cold, hard metal interrupt the scene with the sterile invasive colors of Armageddon.’

Emmott’s thoughts on organised religion mirror mine… I hate the phrase “God called them back” when referring to deceased. She summed up my feelings nicely. Was God bored? Death and it’s randomness sucks. Don’t give me platitudes. I loved how Emmott’s relationship with Aiden developed. The eyes are the window to the soul, it’s said, and powerful conveyors of emotion and intimacy. When that is all you can see of a person’s face (or body), you get to know them for what their soul reflects without opinion being tainted by their looks.

Oh, squee! The modern plague doctors have a computer called ‘Sherlock’.

My only qualms were how childish and selfish Emmott came across at times. Much of this can be explained by how young, and relatively sheltered she was, so even that did add to authenticity. That she tempered that, and had such profound growth over the course of the story made it easier to deal with, though at times during the first third of the book I really wanted to thwack her.

I appreciated that this was the author’s re-imagining of a historical true story, updated for the modern times. She explains a bit about historic Eyam, and how those people chose to impose quarantine upon themselves to stop their pocket of Bubonic Plague from spreading. That is an amazing level of foresight and bravery. It made me interested in learning more of historic Eyam, and curious as to what prompted the author to chose it as a focus.

????? Highly recommended, especially if you enjoy man vs nature stories.

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