Umbrella – Will Self


The plot of Umbrella revolves around psychiatrist Zack Busner who works in Friern mental hospital. One of his patients, Audrey Death, has been catatonic for 50 years. The doctor recognises that she and several other long-term patients may be suffering from encephalitis lethargica, rendering them asleep rather than mad.

This is effectively the story of neurologist Oliver Sacks who awakened a ward full of post-encephalitic patients from the 1920s with new drug L-DOPA in 1969.

The other plot strands are into the past, to hear Audrey’s wartime experiences, and into the future with Busner as an old man looking back on his life.

Umbrella, named for a line from James Joyce’s Ulysses (A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella) sounds interesting but the style is not as simple as the plot sounds. The book is 416 pages in stream of consciousness style. Not only are there no chapters, but there are barely paragraphs breaks, and sentences are long and cluttered – sometimes the narrative can jump between the three strands of time in the same sentence.

…catching a glimpse of his rather hippyish form in a mirror, he wonders at this atavism of apparel, is it an inversion of foetal ontogeny, in which the phenotype passes through previous fashion stages? Soon there will be gaiters and gloves…I will probably die, he thinks, clad in animal skins.

Kudos, you’ve have to be brilliant to be able to write something of this scope, but most of the time I did not have a clue what was going on. There were sections that made sense and were interesting but as a whole it’s not something I would recommend to the average reader. – Rachel


Published 2012
Bloomsbury Publishing
416 pages

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