Masterful. Suspenseful. Eloquent. Thought-provoking. These are four well-deserved adjectives that immediately come to mind when wanting to describe the soaring and scholarly debut novel, “The Herd” from English author, Emily Edwards.
Set in the fictional English town, Farley, outside of London, “The Herd” covers the often-fraught lives of two families – Jack and Elizabeth Chamberlain and their three children (Max, at high school, Charlie at primary school and exuberant and joyful seven year old daughter, Clemmie), and Ash and Bry Kholi and their free-spirited daughter Alba, four years old.
Jack works for a “Chinese property developer in London”, while Elizabeth, a solicitor, has not done paid work since Clemmie, the undeniable ebullient light of Elizabeth’s life, was born. Money is relatively tight for the Chamberlains, as Jack has not had a pay rise for four years and Elizabeth has not really wanted to re-enter the paid workforce, despite “doing more for the whole community than anyone else”.
The Kholi family are next-level above the Chamberlains in terms of wealth. Ash does a couple of days a week of consulting work from the Kholi family home, while Bry has devoted herself entirely to being what she hopes is a wonderful mother to Alba. The two families live opposite eachother in the unassuming yet picture-perfect Saint’s Road in Farley; Elizabeth and Bry being best friends despite their unequivocally starkly different approaches to life and parenting. Bry considers Elizabeth to be “uptight and controlling”, while Elizabeth sees Bry to be somewhat of an alternative hippie and resolutely unorthodox.
Life for both families comes to a shattering climax when Elizabeth and Jack hold a party for Clemmie’s seventh birthday. Elizabeth sends out a beseeching email to the parents of the children invited to Clemmie’s party, the email including, “as you all know, Clemmie had a lot of seizures and was very unwell when she was a baby. Because of this, Clemmie cannot be vaccinated, which means we have to be extra careful…..it would be great if you could confirm that your child is up to date with their vaccination schedule. If you have chosen not to vaccinate your child…we think it’s best if you don’t attend Clemmie’s party, and we’d appreciate it if we could limit future close contact…”
Veritably unforeseen and tumultuously cyclonic conditions erupt in both the Chamberlains’ and Kholis’ lives when Bry abjectly lies in an email to Elizabeth, stating that Alba has been vaccinated, when Alba has only been vaccinated against meningitis and pneumonia (and only because Ash secretly ensured Alba had these vaccinations), not any other diseases. Gut-wrenchingly, Bry, Alba and Clemmie all come down with the measles following their attendance at Clemmie’s party. Most murkily terrifying of all, Clemmie has complications from her measles whereby her brain is affected and she is left with “cortical blindness”, never to see again.
This begins a blatantly vengeful vendetta on the part of Jack and Elizabeth, as they take Ash and Bry to court for gross negligence; Jack and Elizabeth believing that Clemmie caught measles from Bry or Alba. The ensuing court case, garnering a propulsive explosion of media attention, is one where unadulterated rage and loathing are piquantly expressed by Elizabeth, who is representing her case in court as a litigant, towards Bry, and where Bry is left woundedly cowering and shell-shocked in the witness box. As Bry observes of Elizabeth having her day in court, “Bry always knew Elizabeth should have been a barrister rather than a solicitor. Elizabeth’s debut was masterful”. The case is presided over by District Judge Bower, a no-nonsense elderly man who is no stranger to dirt being aired in court.
Ash’s old university friend, Ed Armitage, is acting as a barrister for Ash and Bry, charging them audaciously 600 pounds an hour. It is when the case in court appears to be stagnantly redundant that Ed launches a searingly potent grenade (Ed has unearthed damning evidence on Elizabeth) that will see the case thrown out, but still with life altering effects on the Chamberlains and Kholis forever.
Emily Edwards, in her expertly drawn observations of the human psyche and behaviour, has delivered a novel of spellbinding insights, and understanding of the dilemma faced by parents in countries and societies throughout the modern world – ‘Should I vaccinate my child?’ Emily’s intelligence and foresight permeate and shine through every page of this transfiguring and well-thought-out gift of a novel. Despite being staunchly pro-vaccination myself, the novel highlighted to me the well-meaning argument against vaccinations. I simply can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is certainly a gem of a book, and I can’t wait to see what Emily Edwards writes next.