Emily Edwards is either very astute or really lucky; her first novel “The Herd” is probably one of the most timely novels I’ve ever come across and manages to beautifully demonstrate and explode the grey areas that reside in a divisive and thorny subject – vaccinations. Bearing this in mind I expect that you’re going to see and hear a lot about this book, and along with it, a lot of varying opinions – and I think that’s kind of the point the author is making.
As we’ve seen recently with the difference of opinions over the covid vaccine between those who are pro-vaccination’ and ‘anxi-vaxxers’, there are millions of different perceptions as to what’s right and what’s wrong, and there are many, many different stages in between. Although this book doesn’t focus on the Covid vaccine, rather the MMR vaccinations given to pre-school children, it covers a lot of the same issues, fears and recriminations, and expectations of personal body autonomy and choice that have been raised and discussed in many different ways in the last couple of years.
Set in 2019, prior to the pandemic, I think this book is definitely viewed through a very different lens than it would have been had it been released pre-Covid19 and having lived through the pandemic and the subsequent ‘vaccine wars’, it definitely elevates the themes within and adds a level of understanding and interpretation that might not have been there otherwise.
Bry is the daughter of a staunch ‘anti-vaxxer’, who has waged a war against childhood vaccines since her son, Matty – Bry’s elder brother, was diagnosed with autism, something she believes within every cell is due to the vaccines he received as a baby. Bry knows she could never vaccinate her daughter Alba and not ruin her relationship with her Mum.
Bry’s best friend Elizabeth has a young daughter, Clemmie, who has a health condition and so cannot be vaccinated and who relies on herd immunity to protect her. Just before Clemmie’s birthday party Elizabeth sends out an email requesting that all children that attend the party are vaccinated and those that aren’t, stay away. However Bry hasn’t ever admitted to Elizabeth that Alba is not vaccinated and so when a measles outbreak starts to rampage through their comfortable little community and they all begin to fall ill, Elizabeth discovers the truth and is furious. Worse is to come when poor Clemmie also succumbs to the measles virus and as a result is left with a life-changing condition. Elizabeth can’t cope with what’s happened, and wanting to make Bry and her husband Ash pay she takes the incredibly ill-advised move of dragging them through the courts to show everybody what she feels their actions have led to, despite risking her marriage and her beautiful home in the process.
I really liked the idea behind this book and it was in some ways executed really cleverly – throughout I felt myself sympathising with both families at different times and as I mentioned earlier, I suspect that’s what the author wanted to achieve.
My biggest gripe is that around 2/3 of the way through the book I felt that the theme changed – up to this point the focus was on the grey areas of the pro/anti vaccination argument and highlighting why people can become so entrenched in their beliefs that they lose the ability to talk and think about things objectively, and how people can find themselves in a stalemate with people they care about and not be able to see a compromise. These are themes that are so important in current times and are drawn out really well.
However the story then seemed to become more about revenge than responsibility and the betrayed mother became the villain of the piece and her friend, who had lied to her and put her child in danger, was painted as the victim in all ways and took on that role with aplomb. Added to this there were circumstances that didn’t make sense – Clemmie was allowed to go to parties with unvaccinated children, and to school with them, but they were banned from her birthday party. These were things that confused me and I wasn’t sure if they were meant to not make sense and confuse the issue further, or whether it was an oversight. I was also a bit disappointed that the court case outcome hinged on a technicality that would have been dismissed in the very first rounds of due diligence and that I and my other book club readers had spotted as a potential banana skin very early on.
Ultimately though, I think the message is that there is no right or wrong answer to a question like vaccination. It’s all shades of grey and opinion but people aren’t willing to listen to the ‘other’. This book provoked one of the biggest reactions I’ve seen on The Pigeonhole online book club, from those on both sides of the vaccination debate and also right down the middle of the road. It’s well crafted, certainly an excellent debut and very definitely a book of our time.
Published February 3rd 2022 by Bantam Press (first published September 16th 2021)
About the Author: Emily Edwards
After studying at Edinburgh University, Emily Edwards worked for a think tank in New York before returning to London where she worked as a support worker for vulnerable women at a large charity. She now lives in Lewes, East Sussex with her endlessly patient husband and her two endlessly energetic young sons. The inspiration for The Herd came when she was eight months pregnant with her first son, and her husband and their vaccine-hesitant doula had an impassioned ‘debate’ about vaccination in their garden. As she sat there with her hands over her huge stomach listening to them both, Emily realized this was an issue which impacts us all and that it would make a brilliant topic for a novel.