loulamac’s #CBR5 review #30: Umbrella by Will Self


I have a rule when it comes to books: if I start, I have to finish. This is the main reason I’ve never started Breaking Dawn, and also why I didn’t give up on this book after 20 pages. I’m grateful for both of these things, because while Umbrella isn’t the easiest read, and I didn’t exactly enjoy it, it is good. Really good.

It’s hard to say what it’s about, but it seems tells the story of Audrey Death, growing up in pre-World War One London, working in Woolwich’s munitions factory during the war, and finally as an old lady in Colney Hatch mental hospital in the 1970s. She has been hospitalised for over 40 years, diagnosed as mentally ill when she’s likely a victim of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic that spread across Europe between the wars. It also tells the story of her brothers Albert and Stanley, and the latter’s experiences in the trenches. AND it tells the story of Zachary Busner, a psychiatrist who becomes fascinated with Audrey’s case when he goes to work at Colney Hatch in 1971, which he reflects on as an old man forty years later.

If this sounds confusing, it is. Even more so given that character points of view and period shift mid-sentence without warning. The text is a continual, repetitive stream of consciousness with  sections that seem to indicate a character’s inner voice italicised, no speech marks and few paragraph breaks, making it hard work as well as confusing. But despite all of that it’s a really good book. Really good. The characters are fascinating, I found myself caring deeply about some of them (particularly Stanley), and Busner’s one-man crusade to bring Audrey back from her illness is compelling and tragic. The first 100 or so pages were a battle, but once I took my brain out and let the strange rhythmic prose wash over me, I was absorbed.

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