A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella. (James Joyce, Ulysses)
Surely the phrase “it’s worth the struggle” when applied to a book one is about to read is a phrase to strike fear into the heart of any reader. Yet that is one phrase that seemed to come out of several reviews that I read about this Booker shortlisted novel. Irritatingly it might actually be true. I have to say that a modernist, stream of consciousness is not my idea of a literary good time. It is in fact the kind of writing I generally avoid. There were times when reading this novel – that I lost my way a bit – there were moments when I found myself thinking “what the ..” however I didn’t hate it – I actually rather liked it. It is a challenge – and I do think that the novel will carry on dividing opinion – and it may also, I’m afraid, disengage many readers who feel life is just too short.
“Umbrellas are never contracted for, only mysteriously acquired, to be fleetingly useful, then annoying and cumbersome before eventually being lost.”
The story – don’t worry there is a story, and a good one – concerns Dr Zack Busner and his work in the 1970’s with a group of patients at the Friern hospital in London. The patients are those suffering from encephalitis lethargica – contracted around the time of the First World War. One patient in particular interests Busner – Audrey Death. The story of Dr Busner’s work with his trusty side kick psychiatric nurse Mboya is woven into the story of Audrey’s life and that of her two brothers during the First World War. Audrey, a working class girl born in 1890, becomes a feminist and a munitions worker, at the London Arsenal where her bother Albert launches his career, ending up in charge of the place itself. When Audrey contracts the sleeping sickness that swept the world at this time, her brother Stanley is missing, while Albert is coming up in the world. Busner’s relationship with Mboya and his patients is what really engaged me. The world of the huge Victorian asylums that by the 1970s were coming to an end is a horrifying one, the image of catatonic human beings left for decades to merely exist with little if any intervention is one to make anyone shudder. In 2010 an ageing Busner, returns to where the Friern hospital was, to contemplate his work.
“Nostalgia, he thinks, more and more of it will be needed to tranquillise the collective psychosis of a steadily ageing population. And he would have reached for an appropriate Biro were he not having such a bad day.”
The non-linear structure of this novel makes it hard work at times. There are very long sentences – paragraphs which go for pages – no chapters, and the different story strands weave in and out of one another. There are times when decades pass in the middle of a sentence, so the reader really needs to keep their wits about them, and so it is certainly not a quick read.
As regards the Booker Prize, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it win, it wouldn’t be my choice as winner – but it is clever and the prose is really very good. However I don’t think a book that so many people will be put off reading – or that will start and give up on – should win. For me the prize should be about celebrating books that are beautifully written, certainly, but also books that people want to read and engage with, I’m not sure Umbrella is that kind of book.