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Umbrella by Will Self

Umbrella (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Will Self

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274None42,338 (3.3)1 / 49
Authors:Will Self
Info:Bloomsbury Paperbacks (2012), Kindle Edition, 417 pages
Collections:Kindle Books
Tags:Novel, British, Book Club, London, England, 1970s, 1910s, WWI, Mental Illness, Family

Work details

Umbrella by Will Self (2012)



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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
This book was about mental illness and how it has been treated through WWI through 1977 in Britain. It focuses primarily on Audrey Death - a misdiagnosed patient in a mental hospital and her modern day psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Zachary Busner. She has been catatonic since 1918 and institutionalized until Dr. Busner finds her. In her mind, she is living out different scenes from her past. Through the book, we learn of her father and brothers, her work at the munitions factory, as well as her political leanings as a socialist and sufferagette. The effects of WWI and the industrial revolution run throughout the book. The theme of umbrellas runs through the book as well - whether Audrey was a typist at the Paragon Parasol factory, or Zach was musing about the disposable umbrella of today, they weave throughout the prose.

The interesting part of the novel is that as Dr. Busner increasingly recognizes the signs of mental illness in himself, his family, and the general population as a whole, while he finds a solution physical for Audrey and patients similar to her which he gathers in Ward 20. He stages an intervention and an awakening which for some has been 60 years long. The novel weaves together the storylines from the brothers, Audrey, Busner, a former doctor at the hospital, Audrey's father, and one brother's mistress into a complete tapestry - an oroborous that comes full circle by the close of the novel.

The book is a clear testament to the lackadaisical attitude that many doctors take to pushing pharmaceuticals down patients throats along with a refill and repeat behaviour. Having been on the receiving of this treatment, I don't find it very amusing, so for me, that facet of the story struck home and was very personal in a negative way, but Dr. Busner bucks this system to do the right thing for his patients even though he gets trouble from the administration and the orderlies.

To do the book justice, you either need to have the appropriate psychiatric reference material, or get the ebook version so you have access to the dictionary for all the uncommon medical terminology. Without these definitions, the book is incomplete.

As a slice of history prior to WWI and during the war as well as during the industrial revolution, this book is like slices in time for extremely complex characters. Life was different then, and yet in many ways the same. The imagery is quite stunning and fully accessible for each character - whether in the trenches in France, having tea in an upper class parlor, on a golf course, or at the munitions factory, every scene was beautifully described in both words and sounds. Sounds and songs play a consistent role throughout the prose. This novel is complex. It is weighty and well written with serious messages about quality of life, the medical establishment,technology and progress - or not.

Mr. Self has created what I would consider a piece of literature that should stand the test of time. ( )
  Molecular | Feb 21, 2014 |
  robynsc | Sep 2, 2013 |
Review of sample only, 4 Aug 2012.

My intermittent swooning over Will Self's journalism and radio and TV appearances began nearly two decades ago, and I tingled with anticipation the first time, some time in the early 2000's, when I got my hands on a real whole fiction work of his. But it was as if the brain-fizzing, knicker-dampening, sonorous-voiced arrogant wanker had sent his rather less sexy, sparky and interesting twin brother along on the date instead, Sweet Valley High style. Just enough in the vocabulary and subject matter was similar for a common upbringing to be apparent, but it was just not the same and I left early, comprehensively disillusioned.

And it's been the same every damn time I've read his fiction, hoping that it might somehow turn out different on this occasion. At least with Kindle samples, there's no need to commit to many hours of a whole book if disappointment seems likely to ensue. So when Mr WS's article on modernism set me a-flutter all over again, here was the means to instant, gratis, gratification of that same old sceptical curiosity.

Oh dear. Already on the first page are Joycean slightly scatological stream of consciousness snippets which leave me with the same ennui as Will has just said he feels towards most conventional English prose fiction. Deja-vu ensues as Zack Busner again encounters more of his psychiatric-ward patients again. Whilst Self's ego in the Guardian piece rails against the cosy routines of mainstream eng lit, I suspect his subconscious of trying its best to force out a nice little mental-health based series of the James Herriot / Gervase Phinn school. Also, oh how I would love to see him write something which had nothing to do with London; I understand the immersive allure of the city, really I do, but there are a lot of other places out here. And the old childhood scenes, whilst not bad, seem so very much like My Mother Said I Never Should. So once more, nothing in that depressing category "modern British literary fiction" feels new to read; for a few minutes yet again I thought Will Self might have the antidote, but it was just more of his seductive snake oil. I don't know how to create the real stuff myself, so I may as well bugger off and continue to read non-fiction and foreign stories.

But wait. Whilst there aren't the fireworks of his non-fiction prose here, it's not entirely valueless. Anyone who's familiar with doctors as family members or friends (or colleagues) will recognise the way they contradict one another's professional approaches. He makes me look up three words I'd forgotten: it's not the shock of the new ... a teensy splash in a puddle, perhaps, but it helps. And sometimes the narrative flows in tune with real stream of consciousness (not as forced and stylised as Joyce), projecting images and feelings more than extracting laboured thoughts; this is pleasing.

It's sort-of tempting to read the whole book in the next few days and write one of the first proper online reviews (this specious privilege would cost £11). But tonight, it's heavy stuff. I don't think I can read it at a time when I'm worried in case someone I care about ends up in a place like this. And elderly hospitalised Audrey makes me think too much of the last months of my late grandmother. There are times for stirring up ghosts, having a chat with them and a spot of gentle part-exorcism over the tea leaves. But right now I have a bad headache and a house full of material clutter to continue clearing, so this isn't it.
  antonomasia | Aug 15, 2013 |
"This is not a book for everyone or the casual reader but I did enjoy it."
read more: http://likeiamfeasting.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/umbrella-will-self.html ( )
  mongoosenamedt | Jul 31, 2013 |
I've managed to get about 120 pages into this, but I've got to say I'm struggling. You need long, uninterrupted spells to read a book like this, and a lot of my reading is done on short train journeys. Nevertheless I've enjoyed what I've read, particularly the sections set in the 1970s. I'm abandoning it for now but I'll pick it up again when time is on my side with the hope that the style and voices will quickly become familiar again. ( )
  geocroc | Jul 13, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)

The influence of Joyce’s Ulysses is everywhere, from a housekeeper’s apron printed with pictures of Georgian Dublin to the seamless fragmentation of the prose. An era, a scene, a character’s age can all change in the course of a sentence.

Every experience is filtered through another, or infiltrated by it. At times, this Self-imposed exile from any “fixed regard”, threatens the narrative’s sanity, and its readability, but that is the point. Whether Umbrella takes experimental fiction beyond the magnificent cul-de-sac into which Joyce steered it is doubtful. But this fresh reminder of the potential of finding new selves – to be and to write with – is extraordinary.
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A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.
 - James Joyce
For Deborah
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I'm an ape-man, I'm an ape-man...
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802120725, Hardcover)

"A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella."—James Joyce, Ulysses

Radical and uncompromising, Umbrella is a tour de force from one of England’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, and Self’s most ambitious novel to date. Moving between Edwardian London and a suburban mental hospital in 1971, Umbrella exposes the twentieth century’s technological searchlight as refracted through the dark glass of a long term mental institution. While making his first tours of the hospital at which he has just begun working, maverick psychiatrist Zachary Busner notices that many of the patients exhibit a strange physical tic: rapid, precise movements that they repeat over and over. One of these patients is Audrey Dearth, an elderly woman born in the slums of West London in 1890. Audrey’s memories of a bygone Edwardian London, her lovers, involvement with early feminist and socialist movements, and, in particular, her time working in an umbrella shop, alternate with Busner’s attempts to treat her condition and bring light to her clouded world. Busner’s investigations into Audrey’s illness lead to discoveries about her family that are shocking and tragic.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:55:36 -0400)

A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella. James Joyce, Ulysses Recently having abandoned his RD Laing-influenced experiment in running a therapeutic community - the so-called Concept House in Willesden - maverick psychiatrist Zack Busner arrives at Friern Hospital, a vast Victorian mental asylum in North London, under a professional and a marital cloud. He has every intention of avoiding controversy, but then he encounters Audrey Dearth, a working-class girl from Fulham born in 1890 who has been immured in Friern for decades. A socialist, a feminist and a munitions worker at the Woolwich Arsenal, Audrey fell victim to the encephalitis lethargica sleeping sickness epidemic at the end of the First World War and, like one of the subjects in Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, has been in a coma ever since. Realising that Audrey is just one of a number of post-encephalitics scattered throughout the asylum, Busner becomes involved in an attempt to bring them back to life - with wholly unforeseen consequences.… (more)

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