- Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
- Publication Date:
- 16 August 2012
- Modern & Contemporary
Showing 1-3 out of 3 reviews.
This is not an easy book to read. Paragraphs go on for page after page, so few are the breaks between them that on first sight it seems that there are no paragraphs at all. Streams of consiousnesses flow as the boundaries between the four main characters and three main time periods are endlessly blurred. A sentence will start out at the beginning of the twentieth century and transform seamlessly somewhere in the middle to the thoughts of character nearly a hundred years later. Snippets of songs, and random thoughts force their way into the narrative; a sizeable portion of the text is printed in italics for reasons that are not completely obvious. Looking at the first few pages I very nearly made the decision not to read the book at all, it seemed so obviously to be hard work. But when I started reading, I found that it wasn't the uphill struggle that it had seemed to be. While I certainly couldn't understand everything that was written, or all or even most of the references, by letting it just flow over me I found that I was very engaged with the book, interested in the characters and didn't for a moment think of putting it to one side. In particular I loved the lack of boundaries: the way a Victorian pocket watch transforms within a single sentence to become a digital wrist watch, and the reader suddenly realises that the narrative has changed character and moved forward seventy years.Audrey Death, (or De'Ath, or Deer as her name endlessly mutates) is a long-term patient in the Frien Barnet mental hospital of 1971 Britain. She is one of a number of patients who are believed to be suffering from encephalitis lethargica, a disease which spread throughout Europe in the aftermath of World War I, leaving a third of its sufferers dead and another third completely unable to interact with the world around them, while at the same time suffering from compulsive repetive tics performed at astonishing speed. Dr Zachary Busner, a psychiatrist at the hospital recognises a similarity between certain of their symptoms and those of Parkinson's disease, for which the drug L-DOPA has had positive results. Deciding to treat the sufferers with this drug in a somewhat unorthodox trial, he discovers that the drug has dramatic effects, and the somnambulant patients wake. Interwoven with this narrative is one of Britain during and immediately after the First World War: Audrey's life as an intelligent and politically active young woman working at the Arsenal munitions factory in London; her younger brother Stanley who is obsessed with the mechanical progress that the new century offers; and her older brother Albert whose astonishing calculating power propels him out of the reach of his working class family. The third and final narrative strand is that of the older Dr Busner, retired and looking back on his life and in particular the summer when he awoke the encephalitic patients.I found this to be a very rewarding read, and, apart from The Garden of Evening Mists, the most thought-provoking of my Booker short-list reads. I found the awakening of the patients particularly interesting as it is loosely based on a true story, detailed in Oliver Sacks' book Awakenings and also the subject of the film of the same name with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro (neither of which I had come across before reading this book). But I also enjoyed the characters that Will Self had created against this backdrop and I enjoyed the blurring of time and consciousness that he employs. So while this is not a book for everyone, and requires quite slow and careful reading, I'd encourage people to read at least the first forty of fifty pages before deciding it's not for them.
Although I began my trek though this marvelous novel in confusion and doubt, eventually everything clicked and after about fifty pages I was hooked. It was as if the book revealed itself gradually and then grabbed you ferociously and sped you onward. It is an indictment of the treatment of the mentally ill and psychiatry, an immersion into the ravages of war on both civilians and soldiers, and a pressured study of the human condition. I loved it and would highly recommend it.
Will Self’s Umbrella darts back and forth over decades, over characters, over emotions, and over topics. But at its affecting and surprisingly accessible core, Umbrella tells the heartbreaking stories of Audrey Death—working girl, munitionette during World War One, progressive—and her renegade psychiatrist, Dr. Zachary Busner. Already scarred by neurological damage brought on by packing and assembling shells for the front, Miss Death becomes one of the many post-War victims of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic. Decades later, Dr. Busner, consigned to working in the cavernous Friern Mental Hospital after a failed research career at another hospital, recognizes the complex rationales and patterns inherent in the seemingly random tics of the post-encephalitic “enkies.” Against the advice of his bureaucratic superiors but with the help and encouragement of Mboya, an undervalued Anglo-African aide, Dr. Busner experiments with administering L-Dopa to the enkies, “awakening” them from their catatonia.Will Self populates Umbrella with a rich cast surrounding Miss Death: her lover; her beloved brother Stanley, who dies during the War; her human computer brother, who emerges as Sir Albert De’Ath; her father; and her friend and roommate during the War. Dr. Busner, sad and pathetic, is surrounded by a failing marriage and distant children; remote and critical bureaucratic superiors and staff; and the artfully drawn Mboya.Umbrella demands patience and attention from the reader. Chapters are non-existent, paragraphs extend for multiple pages, and sentences are long. Umbrella includes popular culture and some literary references from twentieth century England, which may enrich reading Umbrella but are not essential to understanding and enjoying it. The often dream-like stream of consciousness in Umbrella likely reflects the thoughts and emotions of the seemingly catatonic enkies. Topics and references scattered throughout Umbrella may send the reader off on hunts for explanations, with certainly a first stop at Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings.With patience and attention, Umbrella provides the reader with memorable and fascinating insights into characters, times, and events that are best not forgotten. Umbrella also stands as a remarkably innovative historical novel. Having just completed my first reading of Umbrella, I already look forward to rereading it.
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