I’m reading through all six of the Booker Prize shortlisted novels – attempting to finish before the winner is announced, although given the size of the books that is looking unlikely at the moment! Here’s the final of my reviews, for Umbrella by Will Self.
Recently having abandoned his RD Laing-influenced experiment in running a therapeutic community – the so-called Concept House in Willesden – maverick psychiatrist Zack Busner arrives at Friern Hospital, a vast Victorian mental asylum in North London, under a professional and a marital cloud. He has every intention of avoiding controversy, but then he encounters Audrey Dearth, a working-class girl from Fulham born in 1890 who has been immured in Friern for decades.
A socialist, a feminist and a munitions worker at the Woolwich Arsenal, Audrey fell victim to the encephalitis lethargica sleeping sickness epidemic at the end of the First World War and, like one of the subjects in Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, has been in a coma ever since. Realising that Audrey is just one of a number of post-encephalitics scattered throughout the asylum, Busner becomes involved in an attempt to bring them back to life – with wholly unforeseen consequences.
Is Audrey’s diseased brain in its nightmarish compulsion a microcosm of the technological revolutions of the twentieth century? And if Audrey is ill at all – perhaps her illness is only modernity itself? And what of Audrey’s two brothers, Stanley and Albert: at the time she fell ill, Stanley was missing presumed dead on the Western Front, while Albert was in charge of the Arsenal itself, a coming man in the Imperial Civil Service. Now, fifty years later, when Audrey awakes from her pathological swoon, which of the two is it who remains alive?
Radical in its conception, uncompromising in its style, Umbrella is Will Self’s most extravagant and imaginative exercise in speculative fiction to date.
I have to apologise up front for this review, because it isn’t really going to be much of a review, as I only managed to get about 30 pages into this one! My warning bells started ringing before I’d even started this book, as all the reviews tended to use phrases like “challenging” and “experimental” and, in more than one place, “defiantly unreadable”. Now, maybe this is just me, but I don’t actually consider “unreadable” to be a praiseworthy trait in a book!
On starting it, my fears were realised. I was confronted with page upon page of dense, almost nonsensical text, with barely a paragraph break to be seen, sentences filled with ellipses, random interjections in italics and words spelled phonetically. Flicking ahead, I realised that the entire book was like this. Umbrella is almost 400 pages of unbroken stream-of-consciousness.
Now, for some people that may be a good thing, or at least not as bit a turn-off as it was for me, but I just couldn’t do it. I got to page 24 on my first morning of reading it, and stopped when I realised I was losing the will to live. I couldn’t follow it at all – points of view, characters, scenes and even time periods shift mid-sentence without warning, so I couldn’t follow what on earth it was supposed to be about. I tried picking it up later, read a few more pages and realised I had no idea what had happened prior to the point at which I’d stopped reading previously. I briefly toyed with the idea of starting again from the beginning, but the prospect of doing so made me want to cry, so I decided to cut my losses and give up on it instead.
All of this is not to suggest that Umbrella is a bad book. It may well be a masterpiece: I really couldn’t judge. Clearly, the Booker judges saw something worthwhile in it, and I’ve seen enough glowing reviews to know that my opinion of it is far from the consensus view! It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m not a fan of experimental fiction generally – there’s a reason I’ve never attempted to read Ulysses! I have no objection to reading challenging fiction – I’m with Jeanette Winterson on this one – but ultimately, I read for pleasure. I’m not going to force myself to slog through a book I’m not following, not enjoying, and that the thought of reading fills me with dread, just because I think I should.
So, unfortunately I don’t think I can give a rating for this one! Anyone else out there read it all the way through and feel like adding their tuppence worth?
For an alternative view to mine, here’s a great video from the Guardian giving the argument for why Umbrella should win the Booker prize (it didn’t, as we all know, but still a good argument!)