My review of Fever by Mary Beth Keane is available on writing.ie.
‘The name Mary Mallon once struck fear into the hearts of the residents of New York and, although a century and more has elapsed since her notoriety was at its height, the Tyrone-born immigrant is still well known to us today as ‘Typhoid Mary’. Yet while we may be aware that, as the first identified asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, Mary was held responsible for a number of deaths and incarcerated as a result, few of us know anything of her internal life and her response to being labelled an unwitting harbinger of disease and death.
In Fever, her second novel and the follow-up to The Walking People (2009), Mary Beth Keane eloquently blends fiction and fact to fill in the largely undocumented intimate details of Mary’s life and her emotional response to such tragedy. Perfectly capturing the harsh realities of life as an immigrant in early 1900s America, Keane paints a sympathetic picture of Mary, an accomplished cook whose popularity amongst the monied families of New York led to unexplained sickness and sometimes death whenever she entered their kitchens. In 1907, after one of these families hired medical investigator George Soper to identify the source of this pestilence, he confronted Mary and had her quarantined against her will on North Brother Island in the East River. There she remained for three years fighting her case and proclaiming her innocence until finally she was allowed to return home on the understanding that she would never work as a cook again. Yet Mary found it impossible to accept that a woman as healthy as she could be the cause of such devastating illness and, determined to make a decent living, felt she had little alternative but to conceal her identity and exploit her talents.
While it’s often difficult to sympathise with Mary, Keane tells her story compassionately and lets her humanity shine through. Mary’s relationship with fellow immigrant Alfred Briehof, a troubled and often feckless man, yet someone she loved dearly nonetheless, is particularly poignant. Keane’s book is a compelling retelling of one of the best known medical mysteries of our time and her version allows us to understand that although the real victims were undoubtedly the people Mary infected, it was a horrific experience for a powerless woman to be demonised and labelled a danger to society through no fault of her own.
Although we are all probably familiar with the facts of the story to some extent, Keane, a talented and lyrical young writer, succeeds in building suspense and surprising us with the twists and turns of feisty Mary Mallon’s tragic life. Recommended.’