The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian (San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2006. 615 pp)
Chris Adrian is the author of Gob’s Grief, The Children’s Hospital, and The Great Night. He earned a B.A. in English from the University of Florida and an M.D. from Eastern Virginia Medical School. He completed a pediatric residency at the University of California, San Francisco, studied at Harvard Divinity School, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
No matter your origin, chances are you’ve encountered a flood story. Judeo-Chrisian households have Noah’s ark, but that’s not the only world-destruction narrative.
Despite the myriad of stories, my tradition operates under the Noahic covenant—that God will never again destroy the world and start anew. Whenever sunlight refracts through rain in a prism, God’s promise against world destruction rings anew.
But what if that promise doesn’t last in perpetuity? What if the depravity of humanity holds consequences?
The Children’s Hospital explores this idea.
The End of the World
Set in—you guessed it—a hospital, the narrative explores the unraveling of society in brutal detail when a diluvial storm leaves the earth under 7 miles of water.
All that’s left is a floating hospital, specially crafted by an Angel-inspired architect to withstand the end of the world. Sick children and those in charge of their care represent the remnant of humanity.
“She found herself thinking in twos as she looked at her fellow survivors. Among the children it was obvious that of even the most obscure illnesses two had been preserved—there were a pair of Pfeiffer syndromes, a pair of intestinal lymphangiectasias, a pair of lymphocyte-adhesion deficiencies; only Brenda, it seemed, was totally unique in her affliction” (143).
At the center of the story, the reader engages with the core protagonist, Jemma, a resident studying to become a doctor.
“She’d had only the most cursory contact with most of the eleven patients she’d seen, a quarter of whom were new to her that morning. She had so many excuses for doing a bad job: she was only a third-year medical student; she didn’t know the patients; the world had ended” (69).
Jenna’s life emerges from a horrific history. Her brother and parents met a bitter end in various forms of suicide. Precious lovers found death in some strange association with Jemma.
And so, Jemma’s current boyfriend, Rob, orbits her at a distance, strategically left at arm’s length given Jemma’s paranoia.
The Angels of the Apocalypse
As the hospital becomes aware of the external calamity, a handful of angels guide the daily activities of the residents, helping doctors care for the sick and providing vague guidance for what is to come.
“It takes four angels to oversee an apocalypse: a recorder to make the book that would be scripture in the new world; a preserver to comfort and to save those selected to be the first generation; an accuser to remind them why they suffer; and a destroyer to revoke the promise of survival and redemption, and to teach them the awful truth about furious sheltering grace” (35).
Is Jemma’s odd upbringing a harbinger for a special role she can play in this new world?
Medicine and Magical Realism
While fantastical in premise, The Children’s Hospital focuses much of its narrative on the daily activities of the hospital in its peculiar circumstances. Given Adrian’s medical expertise, much of the hospital political systems and medical practices receive precious detail, even as it counter the magical realism of a hospital floating on 7 miles of flooded earth.
Unfortunately, Adrian too often feels the need to insert flashbacks into the text, ripping the reader away from an intriguing plot for questionable exposition of Jemma’s life with her family before the worldwide disaster.
Outside of these unfortunate interludes, The Children’s Hospital possesses plenty of intrigue. Why not throw another flood narrative on the pile? If you can stomach the length, the book is worth your time.
Verdict: 3 out of 5