Buried deep under a mess of contractions, grammatical debris, and indecipherable Cockney slang lies a story – a nouveau modernist tale that reads kind of like a hybrid of Dadaism, Faulkner, Eliot, and Dr. Seuss. In Will Self’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, we are introduced to Zack Busner, a psychiatrist at Friern Hospital in London. Busner and his staff primarily deal with victims of Encephalitis Lethargica – an epidemic that spread around the time of World War I and leaves its victims in a catatonic state. Busner has been treating these patients for years with no luck, but eventually, Audrey Death begins to respond to his treatments.
Audrey has been a patient at Friern for longer than Busner has been there, and as she slowly emerges from her catatonic state and the clouds of her mind clear away, Busner is shocked at how difficult and challenging it is to rehabilitate post-encephalitic patients in a modern world. While Audrey has absorbed more of her surroundings than Busner previously thought, most of her thoughts are stuck in the time before her affliction, and it is the hospital staff’s unenviable task to modernize and rehabilitate these Sleeping Beauty patients. After a few weeks of this, Busner begins to wonder if perhaps patients like Audrey would be “better off” if their rotting brains were left alone, but it’s too late to turn back now.
Told in the alternating voices of Audrey and Dr. Busner throughout who knows how many time periods, Umbrella should be a compelling read about war, modernity, sex, gender, experimental medicine, and the lack of accountability in the mental health system – but it’s not. Well, it might actually be about those things, but unless you’re armed with a pretty highfalutin vocabulary, a working knowledge of Cockney accents and London slang, and the 3D decoder from the accompanying Umbrella cereal box, then you might just find yourself completely lost in the literary rain without a literate umbrella.
This review was simultaneously published on Hooked Bookworm