I recently finished reading Umbrella by Will Self. A novel without chapters and hardly any paragraph breaks; a novel of shifting consciousnesses, where the narrative viewpoint often jumps mid-sentence; a novel unfurling along many different spokes, spanning a century, hopping back and forth between different decades; centred in London, her accents and voices, her many-layered psycho-geograhic reference points. A challenging read, and one it took me a while to get into, but I was gradually engrossed and, several days after finishing the book, I’m still thinking about Audrey Death, munitionette, suffragette, locked in limbo for 50 years after being struck down with encephalitis lethargica; wayward psychiatrist Dr Zack Busner, who briefly wakes Audrey and her fellow ‘enkies’ with a powerful new drug in the early 1970s; Audrey’s younger brother Stanley, missing in action in the carnage of the Great War, his consciousness persisting in a strange, subterranean proto-utopia of lost men, transforming – feminising – themselves. Umbrella explores, amongst other things, the impact of mechanisation on human lives and interactions; as well as the 20th century’s new religion of psychiatry – and the passages dealing with the capital’s large mental asylums and the evolving, yet mostly still brutal, treatment regimes, are amongst the book’s most troubling and moving sequences.
The novel is ideas-rich, and also rich in its language. It’s funny and painful and deeply engaged. An important, and ultimately absorbing, book.