Sophia's Reviews > Umbrella

Umbrella by Will Self
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's review
Aug 24, 2012

it was amazing
Read from August 24 to 25, 2012

There are three main narrative strands in Umbrella. The first follows Zack Busner, a psychiatrist working in the 1970s at the huge Friern Mental Hospital near the Alexandra Palace in London. He becomes fascinated by the brain disease encephalitis lethargica, and by one particular elderly patient who suffers from the condition. Audrey Death was admitted to Friern when she was struck down by this disease in 1918. She is semi-catatonic, able to walk but plagued by tics which overwhelm any natural movement, and incapable of normal speech. Busner is convinced that somewhere trapped inside her body, Audrey's conciousness, and that of other sufferers of encephalitis lethargica, remains intact.

The second strand follows Audrey from her childhood through to the onset of her disease. This was my favourite part of the story and Will Self's descriptions of life in Victorian London were wonderful. We also spend time with Audrey's brothers; Stan, a sensitive young man whom we follow to the trenches in France and Albert, a highly intelligent but cold and calculating over-acheiver. The third strand of the story is set in the present day with Busner now an old man, living alone and haunted by his memories of Friern, which has now closed down and been converted into luxury flats.

It all sounds quite simple and clear cut when I write it down in like this, but of course it isn't - Will Self doesn't really do simple. He dispenses with chapters and even paragraphs and the whole thing just runs on and on in a Joycian stream-of-consciousness. He switches between the different time periods and viewpoints without warning, splicing them together - often in a single sentence - in a way that reminded me of a DJ mixing tracks. Of course this gives the reader the very practical problem of having no natural breaks where you can go and make a cup of tea or indeed make any room in your life for anything but Umbrella. Will Self demands your complete attention for as long as it takes and I felt totally engulfed by this novel, finally emerging after two days in a kind of stupor. Not that I'm complaining, but if you'd like to read this too then you need to be prepared to set aside some serious time.

Self writes about the sad, the angry, the sordid and the nasty, laying bare the innermost self of each character with no flatteries or allowances made. His use of metaphor is just astonishing, he revels in obscure words and phrases, but his mind whirrs at such speed that I could read this book a hundred times and never quite catch it all. Possibly the most important "character" in Umbrella is the hospital itself, cold and brooding, a nightmare place that reeks of despair and pain. There's little of the humour you'll find in other Self novels, but that's quite appropriate with such dark subject matter.

Umbrella made me feel as though I was just hanging on by my fingernails as the Will Self express roared along. His vocabulary is, of course, amazing, and my dictionary didn't leave my side as I scrabbled along trying to understand every little thing and failing miserably. Self is so unashamedly literary he makes me feel dull and stupid in comparison, which is unsettling but not necessarily a bad thing once in a while. In fact, it's quite refreshing to find an author who just doesn't care about making a novel that will be accessible or have mass appeal. He writes what he wants to write and if you can't keep up, tough!

There are people who will hate Umbrella - members of the anti Will Self brigade who find him pretentious and verbose. I can understand this viewpoint but I can't agree. I genuinely think his mind works on another level to that of most people, and I had a metal picture of him writing this in his garret, fingers flying across the keyboard as they tried to keep up with his brain. If you are prepared to put some effort in, Umbrella is hugely rewarding, and I definitely think it fulfils the criteria this year's Booker judges set of revealing more on subsequent readings. Is it a masterpiece? Well, I don't feel in the least bit qualified to judge something like that, but I really think it might be.
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04/29/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Victor (new) - added it

Victor Thank you, I enjoyed your wonderful review.

Sophia Thank you, I'm glad you liked it :)

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