The Herd by Emily Edwards

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The Herd by Emily Edwards

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: I thought I was vaccined out, that I couldn't read another word about whether we should or we shouldn't. Then I read this brilliant book which explores the balance between social responsibility and personal choice. If your book club is looking for a top read, you need look no further.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: February 2022
Publisher: Bantam Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1787634886

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Our story opens in December 2019, before most of us had even heard of Covid or realised that whether or not we should be vaccinated would come to be a major issue. We're in Farley County Court, where Elizabeth and Jack Chamberlain are facing Bryony and Ash Kohli. As they were best friends until just a few months ago we know that whatever has happened is major and that, regardless of the outcome, this is not going to work out well for anyone.

Let's wind back to July 2019. Both families live in Saints Road and the Kohlis moved there from London to be in a better area and close to their friends. The families do live in each others' pockets - godparents to each others' children and working almost like an extended family. The Chamberlains have three children. Max and Charlie are healthy and living well, but six-year-old Clemmie had seizures as a child and Elizabeth is protective of her health because it would be too risky to vaccinate her against the common childhood illnesses. Elizabeth is evangelical about vaccinations: everyone else should be jabbed to protect her child.

It's never really come up in discussions between Bry and Elizabeth, mainly because Elizabeth assumes that four-year-old Alba has been vaccinated but Bry has compelling reasons to fear vaccinations. Her brother, Matty, only in his forties, is in care because of autism which manifested itself when he had his MMR jab as a child. Bry's been brought up by a mother who is vitriolic about the problems which vaccines cause. In fairness to vaccines, it does seem that, in Sarah's world, any illness that anyone who has ever been vaccinated develops can be traced back to that vaccination.

None of what happened was deliberate. They were all people under pressure, be it money, work or just trying to live a reasonable life. Elizabeth made an assumption based on a rather short response from Bry, that Alba was fully vaccinated, including the MMR jab, when she was not. The measles outbreak caught both families and for one of them, the consequences would be devastating.

The writing and characterisation are both exquisite. Elizabeth is super organised but Bry is her polar opposite: Time seems to spill around her, messy and uncontainable. Ash is on his second marriage and worried that - despite the £2,000,000 he made from the sale of his business - this marriage will go the same way as his first. He's burdened: life sags around him like excess skin. He's aware too that he's not in agreement with his wife on the vaccination question. Jack's not certain that he would go as far as Elizabeth does but she's a force of nature when it comes to Clemmie.

Over recent months there's been a lively debate about the rights and wrongs of vaccination. I've not had a problem: a history of major chest infections made the decision about Covid vaccines for me, but there was another reason. I worried about who I might pass the illness to and what help I might need to get me through it. I had a friend who couldn't be vaccinated, another who was against it on principle and quite a few who were ambivalent but most, like me, joined the queue with an arm ready to take the needle. The situation was much the same in Farley and the story Edwards tells is riveting. I read it in twenty-four hours, petulant when I had to put the book down and anxious to get back to it, to find out what happened. The ending is stunning - probably one of the best I've read for a long time. I really didn't see it coming.

The plotting is superb. You're pulled down a path where you can understand why everyone takes the actions they do. You even suspect that you might have done the same yourself. You'll debate whether you should think of the potential harm which could be done to you or the harm which you might do to other people. Above all, you'll realise, as one character says, that there's risk inherent in every decision we make, in everything we do.

If your book club is looking for something special then you need look no further. I'd like to thank the publishers for letting Bookbag have a review copy.

If you would like a non-fiction look at this subject, we can recommend The End of Plagues: The Global Battle Against Infectious Disease by John Rhodes. For more fiction, try Keep You Safe by Melissa Hill.

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