By Reina James
Portobello Books, $NZ28 | Reviewed by Jennifer Wittig

THE 1918 flu pandemic, commonly known as the Spanish flu, killed some 50 to 100 million people worldwide in just 18 months, which was estimated to be 2.5-5% of the human population. In contrast to most influenza outbreaks, many of its victims were healthy young adults. This is the focus of the debut novel by Reina James This Time of Dying. James writes a touching historical novel that is dedicated to her grandparents, both victims of the Spanish flu.

The protagonist of the story is local undertaker, Henry Speake of Speake & Son Undertakers. Henry has all ready seen his fair share of death caused by the ravages of war, but what he sees emerging now from the opening chapter of the book, is something far more forceful and threatening than war. Death surrounds London, it is on every street corner, in every house, in every bed and death becomes all encompassing and all fearing. At a time when cremation was still virtually unused, Henry has to make tough decisions such as burying more than one body in one casket, and providing speedier processes in order to meet the needs of the bodies which just keep piling up. But what do you do when your gravediggers fall ill, when there isn’t enough wood for the coffins to bury the dead in and when there looks to be no or little support from government in easing the pain and suffering?

Unable to turn to his disapproving and demanding sisters, Henry turns to Mrs Allen Thompson, a recently widowed school teacher suffering from her own troubles. Her sister Lily is determined to starve herself to death due to her fears that their maid Ada has been affiliating with the German soldiers (when in fact she is having a relationship with the milk woman) and is hell bent on having Ada cast out of the house. Allen refuses this blackmail and keeps Ada on, even taking in Gladys later when she suffers from influenza. In between she watches children in her class die, looses her friend and colleague whilst trying to find peace, by wrapping her arms tightly around her dead husband’s pillow at night.

The relationship between Henry and Allen is frowned upon, not only by Henry’s sisters but also his co-workers, and at the end of the novel threatens his profession. Likewise the relationship between the two themselves does not run a smooth course; Henry wishes for someone to talk to, someone to confide in and share his fears of the influenza running riot, and Allen only realises her true feelings later when in a moment of confusion she sees a tender spot between Henry and Ada that she herself so desperately longs for.

The story is shared between Henry and Allen (and various other townspeople including the doctor and one of Henry’s sisters who lives in New Zealand). Henry is only really portrayed tenderly through his love for the piano – “I was always the odd one out. The boy, the musical boy” – and otherwise seems regimented in his way of dealing with death and his interactions with Allen. Yet the love story grows, somewhat slowly and not until the end with more certainty of a future than at the beginning:

“She was Eve again, standing naked in the garden. She was frightened! He was walking towards her. What if he touched her? She should run away! She has provoked him - she had pressed him to answer her and his answer was...

Henry put his hands on her shoulders and looked down into her face. His breath was surprisingly sweet.”

It is an interesting topic to choose for a first novel, and a daring one at that. It perhaps would have aided readers if James had added a postscript with some factual evidence about the Spanish flu, since I personally knew very little about it. Another criticism was that it was hard to keep track of all the families and people in the book, because James chose to give them not only faces but also names, making it hard to keep momentum.

The most poignant relationship is between Ada and Gladys, and the tender relationship thus developed between Ada and Allen (we find out later that the reason why Ada as a servant is kept on the same floor as her mistress is because of Allen’s fear of sleeping alone on the floor after her husband died) that becomes a fleeting moment of compassion present during Gladys’ death but vanishing soon thereafter. What James portrays is that relationships were hard to maintain especially during such a turbulent time.

“The disease simply had its way. It came like a thief in the night and stole treasure.”