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Umbrella [Hardcover]

Will Self
3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
RRP: 18.99
Price: 14.29 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

16 Aug 2012

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.

Is Audrey's diseased brain in its nightmarish compulsion a microcosm of the technological revolutions of the twentieth century? And if Audrey is ill at all - perhaps her illness is only modernity itself? And what of Audrey's two brothers, Stanley and Albert: at the time she fell ill, Stanley was missing presumed dead on the Western Front, while Albert was in charge of the Arsenal itself, a coming man in the Imperial Civil Service. Now, fifty years later, when Audrey awakes from her pathological swoon, which of the two is it who remains alive?

Radical in its conception, uncompromising in its style, Umbrella is Will Self's most extravagant and imaginative exercise in speculative fiction to date.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (16 Aug 2012)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 1408820145
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408820148
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 15.8 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 138,435 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


In these culturally straitened times few writers would have the artistic effrontery to offer us a novel as daring, exuberant and richly dense as Umbrella. Will Self has carried the Modernist challenge into the twenty-first century, and worked a wonder (John Banville)

Umbrella is his best book yet ... It makes new for today the lessons taught by the morals of Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five, The Tin Drum, also Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Alasdair Gray)

Self has never been shortlisted for the Booker, but Umbrella is such a linguistically adept, emotionally subtle and ethically complex novel that this could and should be his year (Guardian)

A tour de force ... Despite the bleakness of the message, by the end you are filled with elation at the author's exuberant ambition and the swaggering way he carries it all off, and then a huge sense of deflation at the realisation that whatever book you read next, it won't be anything like this (Daily Mail)

A dazzling feat of imagination and structure: a sprawling, lyrical, stream-of-consciousness narrative that squares up to modernism and brings it kicking and screaming into the 21st century ... stomach-lurchingly ambitious (Observer)

The reader is snagged on moments of brilliance and, most thrilling of all, left to make her own connections (Daily Telegraph)

A superbly realised exemplar of an older and rarer genre - a metaphysical novel in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, exploring the evanescence of consciousness in a material world that can never be finally understood (New Statesman, Books of the Year)

Umbrella is a magnificent celebration of modernist prose, an epic account of the first world war, a frightening investigation into the pathology of mental illness ... must be recognised as, above all, a virtuoso triumph of emotional and creative intelligence (Spectator)

Kind of amazing ... It may not be his easiest, but I think this may be Will Self's best book (Sam Leith, Observer)

Ambitious and mind-blowing linguistic tapestry of a novel

(Independent on Sunday)

Amazing - it's like a different creature altogether (Alison Moore, The Observer)

Passionate and melancholic (Times Literary Supplement)

A high-spirited footnote to the modernism of James Joyce, this fascinating literary experiment came tantalisingly close to winning the 2012 Booker prize ... Umbrella is one of the most exhilarating "difficult" books published for many years ... Rarely has a historic novel provided such a challenge


He succeeds beautifully, writing with a new sophistication. The result is a stunning novel, and a compelling Self-reinvention (Independent on Sunday)

Extraordinary (The Lady)

By the end you are filled with elation at the author's exuberant ambition and the swaggering way he carries it all off, and then a huge sense of deflation at the realisation that whatever book you read next, it won't be anything like this (Daily Mail)

An ebullient, seductive, virtuoso display of imaginative prose which, if you have the stamina, is truly mind-blowing [...] wonderfully achieved. If I was on the panel I would vote for its Falstaffian audacity and wayward charm (Robert McCrum, Observer)

Time slips, perspectives shift and the book's wormhole dance is dazzling (Financial Times, Books of the Year)

Self is the Marmite of contemporary fiction - some find his verbal fireworks show-offy, others love his anarchic sheer bloody brilliance ... His playful way with language and layout is unstoppably entertaining (Kate Saunders, The Times)

His deepest and most rewarding novel to date. Madness, war, mechanisation; class, feminism and modernity - all these and more are interrogated in a dense slab of prose that spans the 20th century and jumps from one consciousness to another in the high old modernist style (Guardian, Books of the Year)

Will Self finds his authentic voice as a writer and reclaims the high modernist mode as a natural and highly emotional form of narration. It's exhilarating for that reason ... Once you get used to it, it's not at all difficult to read (Jonathan Coe, Metro)

A wonderful piece of sustained writing and passion. Just dive in and let it take you to good places (A. L. Kennedy, Scotsman Books of the Year)

Books of the Year (Boyd Tonkin, Independent)

An ambitious and sophisticated book about memory and the human brain that - with its shifting time frames, flipping points of view and voices in various heads - in no way advertised its ease for the reader (Daily Telegraph)

A fun book, endearingly self-satisfied. It is difficult not to enjoy its tricks and bravura flourishes (Eileen Battersby, Irish Times Book of the Year)

Extravagant, imaginative and utterly bonkers: Self's best yet (Observer)

Book Description


The major new novel by the author of Great Apes, How the Dead Live and The Book of Dave

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A lesson on ageing 30 May 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
What can I say? This book will polarise opinion because of the dense style. But it is a decentred account of ageing and what it means when as our life develops people come and go just like an Umbrella. In a wonderful passage of text Wil Self tells us that we never quite know how we acquire an umbrella but when its gone we miss it.

The same can be said for old friends, and old selves. We 'acquire' our family, we don't choose it. But it also applies to ourselves. The person we might have been at one time was acquired rather than chosen. How will we see ourselves when we look back through our lives like Busner does when he sees himself and his profession? The novel deals with these questions and many more.

It is not an easy read but it is well worth the effort. It should make us all think about who we were, who we are, how we became what we are and indeed where are we going.... Are we all destined to see ourselves when we are older in the form of the Umbrella that got lost?
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115 of 140 people found the following review helpful
By Ripple TOP 100 REVIEWER
Will Self's "Umbrella" spans a century taking three interwoven strands. One features Audrey Dearth, who in 1918 is a munitions worker who falls ill with encephalitis lethargica, a brain disease that spread over Europe after the Great War rendering many of its victims speechless and motionless. She is incarcerated in Friern hospital where, in the early 1970s a psychiatrist, Zach Busner wakes her from her stupor using a new drug. In the final thread, in 2010 the asylum has closed and the now retired Busner travels across north London seeking the truth about his encounter with his former patient. While that sounds like a fascinating story in its own right, be warned. Self's approach is ambitiously modernistic making this a very heavy going tome even by Self's standards.

Stream of consciousness books can be challenging but good, non-linear books can be confusing but illuminating. Taken together though they are a mess that no amount of clever word play can rescue.

The narrative is a stream of consciousness epic that doesn't break for silly ideas like chapters, or even many paragraphs, most of which last for two or three pages each. Similarly there is no chronological development or discernable structure and time frames and points of view are spliced together, often within the same paragraph. Most of us don't have the luxury of endless hours in which to read and have to fit reading in around life, necessitating putting a book down at some point. Quite where you are supposed to do this in "Umbrella" is a bit of a mystery. Although picking the book up again was more of a challenge than putting it down.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inside out 15 Feb 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
What can I say about this extraordinary novel. I finished it after much hard slog,disappointed in myself that I didn't put in more effort getting there. Having left it to read other less demanding books I feel I may be guilty of being one who Will Self alludes to as a lazy reader. Shame on me. Sorry Will.
I recommend you stick to it to glean the rich rewards Umbrella offers.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lose yourself in Self 5 Feb 2014
This modernist and stream of consciousness novel will not be to everyone's taste. If you need the 'permission' of a chapter end to stop reading, then either don't read this book, or start reading it surrounded by extensive supplies of food and drink and with a toilet close at hand. There are no chapters, no parts, not even a few handy blank lines, just a constant flow of sentences. Treat these sentences like a wonderful word tapestry being woven by Audrey Death, her brother Stanley and Dr Zach Busner, using threads from Edwardian London, the horrors of the World War 1 trenches, and 1970s & 1990s London, and you can start to relax and comprehend what Self is trying to say. I fought this book initially, wanting desperately to understand who and when I was in each sentence before moving onto the next one. In the end, I learnt to absorb long sections and trust that afterwards I would have a sense of what had happened in each of the story lines, which ultimately are one story line.

It's hard work, but worth every moment if you want to reflect on how we are so careless with our fellow human beings.
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4.0 out of 5 stars well written and engrosing 22 April 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Well written and a good insight into psychiatry in the 60's. The characters are excellently drawn. Although I feared it might be heavy, I was gripped and am glad I read it.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Perseverance is key 29 Dec 2013
By JonoBB
I have never had to urge myself on to finish a book as much as this, but I am glad I did. The stream of consciousness writing style is something I had never encountered before (and not sure I would like to again) but it did suit the book. The narrative jumps from character to different generations to different locations effortlessly and can make it difficult to follow but it just works and is a testament to the writing. Although I'm not eager to read it again I did enjoy it, if you want something different I would recommend this, but make sure you have a lot of will power.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A winner ! 16 Sep 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Excellent he should have won the Booker for this. I looked at this book on the shelves of a bookstore for 3 weeks before i bought it and couldn't get the song, I am an Apeman out of my head,songs poetry history this book had everything.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars WTF--?
Having read "Umbrella", I'm still dependent on the jacket blurb to know what it's about.

The Emperor-author Self has no literary clothes in this "novel"... Read more
Published 10 days ago by Mrs. R. H. A. Wenner
2.0 out of 5 stars Hard-going stream of consciousness
Umbrella was short-listed for this year's Booker Prize and I read enough interesting things about it to be tempted. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Kym Hamer
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it or you'll never know.
I have just read this fantastic tale. I have never read anything like it before. I don't think Self's Umbrella is trying to be 'clever' or stuffed with 'long' words for the sake of... Read more
Published 4 months ago by robert johnson
1.0 out of 5 stars What a shocker
Not since Bob Dylan's "Tarantula" has there been such pretentious tosh foisted on the reading public. Don't do it. Really.
Published 4 months ago by Pozlit
1.0 out of 5 stars oh how i tried
lots of big words (aren't you clever Will?), very little sense. I so wanted to like this - had to give up.
Published 4 months ago by gary s fenton
3.0 out of 5 stars Christmas present
My husband is a fan of his books so lets hope this is as good as the rest which he loves
Published 5 months ago by sanmar
1.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious
The usual showing off from self. Deliberate use of obscure words to demonstrate the writers cleverness. However, does nothing to make the book interesting.
Published 5 months ago by Mr. K. A. Longmore
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant labour of love
While Vic Wilcox, the macho middle manager in David Lodge's Nice Work, reckons that reading "is what you do when you come home from work, to relax", Robyn Penrose, the feminist... Read more
Published 6 months ago by jfp2006
1.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious
This book is unreadable. It tries to be oh so clever but fails in the basic function of a novel, namely to be in some way illuminating or enjoyable. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Joyful
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