Author: Will Self. 2012.
Genre: Modernist. Literary. Period/Contemporary. Mental Health. War.
Other Details: Hardback. 397 pages.
A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella. - James Joyce, Ulysses (quoted at start of Umbrella)
Audrey Death is a socialist and feminist working at Woolwich Arsenal munitions plant manufacturing arms for use in the First World War. One of her brothers is a soldier sent to the Western Front and the other a civil servant overseeing the Woolwich Arsenal. She later contracts encephalitis lethargica, the sleeping sickness that swept Europe in 1918. Audrey is placed in Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum (later renamed Friern Hospital) where she remains in a catatonic state until 1971, when psychiatrist Zack Busner briefly restores her and others with the illness to lucidity with an experimental treatment. In 2010, a retired Zack considers his life and career as a psychiatrist He visits Friern Hospital now converted to Princess Park, a luxury block of flats.
Will Self cites James Joyce and Virginia Woolf as inspirations for this deliberately stylised 'Modernist' novel. It was no surprise to me when this novel headed a list of the 10 most difficult books to finish recently produced by The Observer newspaper. While I am not shy about reading 'challenging' novels, this proved very hard work from start to finish. If I wasn't reading it as part of a Man Booker Shadowing Group, I would have quickly abandoned it. After hearing my complaints as I struggled with the confusing prose, my housemate suggested that I just let the words wash over me. After a while of doing this, I found I was less bothered by its stream-of-consciousness style, surralistic asides, lack of chapters/paragraphs and the constant jumping about in time/point of view. While the novel still didn't engage me this stategy rendered reading it a less painful experience.
Audrey's tale was inspired by Oliver Sacks' work with encephalitis victims recounted in his memoir Awakenings. I was interested in the subject of mental illness and the shifts in attitudes of the medical profession over time. Still I rather wish he had tackled this subject in a more conventional style because it is one of those areas where there is a great deal of misunderstanding and/or sensationalism. I am uncertain whether this novel will really contribute to the debate on these issues. I was interested in the history of Colney Hatch, once named lunatic asylum, then hospital and finally with the onset of new policies in mental health care decommissioned as a hospital and developed as a luxury housing development. I had assumed that the concept of the converted asylum was a horror fiction trope rather than reflecting the history of one of the world's most notable mental institutions.
Still the difficulty with Self's decision to abandon the conventions of the novel format was that overall the novel felt extremely fragmented. As a result I never felt any real engagement with the characters despite wanting to. The tragedy of Audrey's situation felt diminished by the focus on the Modernist style.
This was another case of my finding myself at odds with critical reviews, which were falling over themselves in praise of Self's bold modernism. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the novel, I did conceded in our Shadow Group meetings that it did stand out from some of the others on the short-list, which seemed worthy but not especially exceptional. I almost expected Umbrella would win the Man Booker for the risks it took. It will be interesting to see the responses from critics, bloggers and readers when the novel is published in the US in January 2013.
Will Self's website on 'Umbrella' - various entries about the book.
John Crace's Digested Read on Umbrella - this is not a novel with spoilers and Crace provides a very funny 400-word parody.