49 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Unexpected Masterpiece
I am rather surprised to say this but, I read all of Umbrella and enjoyed it.
Let's be clear about this. I have a terrible track record with Will Self. I dip in and out of his books every couple of years or so and it's far too easy to quickly assign them to a phase in his career: this is the year he wanted to be like William Burroughs, this is when he was going...
Published 14 months ago by Alex in Leeds
112 of 137 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Non-linear + stream of consciousness = heavy going mess
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...
Published 16 months ago by Ripple
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112 of 137 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Non-linear + stream of consciousness = heavy going mess,
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.
Add to that Self's penchant for odd voices, which while easier to follow than in say "The Book of Dave" still feature oddities such as using a "v" as a substitute for "th" in what is broadly a cockney dialect, but still distract from the flow, particularly as the utterances are often quite random. Of course, this being a modernistic style, useful indicators such as quotation marks are completely old hat, although he does allow the luxury of italics what sometimes but not always show speech.
Your views on what is an undeniably ambitious novel will depend on your tolerance for this modernistic approach. The title is from a James Joyce quotation and the inference is that this is a modern day "Ulysses". To some, the approach may be intriguing and the connections brought out by the style, but to me it detracted from what might have been an interesting look at psychiatry and the treatment of illness and the changes to that over the last hundred years. I'm all for a radical approach if it sheds new light on these things, but not if it merely obfuscates any message or point as this did for me.
The non-linear and jumpy narrative is like being locked in the mind of someone who clearly is in need of psychiatric help if not medication, and yet where you get glimpses of the story line, the message seems to be about the limitations of this and the problems it causes. This is what is so frustrating. For a few pages at a time, the story line sometimes follows something that you can follow, but then Self seems to think the reader has had enough of that luxury and whips it away before you can say "this is getting good now". It seems to want to say something interesting about mental turmoil and modern day life but is so confusing that this is just lost in the flood.
The experience is rather like listening to a badly tuned short wave radio that keeps jumping between different stations. There's no doubting Self's huge intellect but there is none of his sly humour here that can be so illuminating. I cannot help but wonder if a writer without Self's credentials presented this to their publisher, would it really have been published? I'm not so sure. He is, in my view, a fine journalist and commentator but I'm increasingly of the view that giving him a novel to write is like giving a six year old a catapult.
Of course, I could be quite misguided and just didn't "get it". Certainly the Booker Prize panel disagree with me and have long listed it. The judges have noted that this year the focus is on books that reveal more on second reading, and this is probably true of "Umbrella" - but I won't be in any hurry to find out. One thing is for certain, if last year's judges who emphasised "readability" were still in place, this wouldn't have got a look in.
49 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Unexpected Masterpiece,
Let's be clear about this. I have a terrible track record with Will Self. I dip in and out of his books every couple of years or so and it's far too easy to quickly assign them to a phase in his career: this is the year he wanted to be like William Burroughs, this is when he was going through a Kafka period etc. With Umbrella, as you might already already know if you've seen other reviews, he's channeling James Joyce. 416 pages of Will Self throwing Joycean styling, any pop culture reference he feels like, a recurring character I dislike and a medical story as a plot framework together sounds well, a surprisingly Kafka-esque nightmare to me as a reader.
And yet, I loved it. I think it is the best thing he's ever written.
I think it's because it is a very contemporary take on the modernist novel, a more humane version of the stream-of-consciousness style. Instead of reading like Joyce's wearyingly arcane prose that always makes me think he's double-encrypted it and lost the key that could crack it for others he captures lives we can recognise in a way that we can recognise.
In the first plot strand we have Zach Busner in the 1970s working as a psychiatrist and watch him become fascinated with the elderly Audrey Death who became locked inside her own head as a result of a disease in 1918. He's convinced he can figure out a way to free her, but after over 50 years disconnected from the world can that really be a good idea? The second strand follows Audrey's life up until her illness which includes her brothers' experiences in WWI (perfectly and originally done) and the third strand, set in the present day, shows Busner as an elderly man himself.
The style will put people off, the use of rare or complex words and references will put people off. Of course it will. But this is a masterpiece and this will, if there is any sense in the world, be studied and appreciated in years to come. It is grimy, it is sordid, it is tender and it is poetic. You can skip every difficult word in this if you like. It'll make no difference, you'll get the feel for what's happening and nothing will be lost except the specific connection Self's making to someone he is intrigued by or a story he's learnt. You'll still feel the raw energy, crackling through the lexiconic veins of this book.
This is Self the innovator at work here, not Self the witty dinner party guest.
`All of it he had foreseen himself unpacking, unsheathing and unfolding, so that the pressed flowers bloomed into dust as he read the missives for the first time since their long-gone recipients set the sheets to one side. It was not - he considers as he raises the candy-striped canvas blind to discover decals of outsized and grinning pizza-eaters being leant against by real people who are grimy in the surprising sunlight that shines on the far side of Fortress Road - the unexamined life that was worthless, but the one un-re-examined by the properly qualified.'
Re-inventing a style well on the way to being consigned to the interest of just historians and academics, with flair and good humour, this is a triumph.
No one is more surprised than I am to hear me say so.
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it or you'll never know.,
This review is from: Umbrella (Paperback)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 it as some feel. Will Self is clever (surely that's a good thing isn't it?)and if the vocabulary is tricky use a dictionary;that's what I did. There were not that many words I didn't understand and am glad to have learned a few more. The hard work that has obviously gone into this book made me feel really grateful and glad that we have such an original writer in the UK who puts real graft behind his art. Integrity is the word. This is not writing by numbers. I did get lost in places as to exactly what was happening but decided to just enjoy the feeling and go with it. I don't feel these were faults in the novel but more to do with my reading skills and anyway, at some point you're helped back in from one of the umbrella spokes and onto the handle again! Fasten your seat belt and read it!
4.0 out of 5 stars Not an easy book,
This review is from: Umbrella (Kindle Edition)I am only half way through the book 51% to be precise. I will finish it as it is good in parts, but you have to take it as a whole which is difficult to maintain as it slides from one scene to the next., and to be honest I am thankful for my dictionary on my kindle as I do struggle with some of the words not having a university background . He is dazzlingly and sometimes obscurely erudite yet with a clear and coherent style that challenges our current common sense views.
5.0 out of 5 stars Title,
This review is from: Umbrella (Kindle Edition)I love Will Self's novels and this is brilliant. Of course it's not an easy read but you are propelled through London thinking about illness, sanity, ageing and time. What I like most is that although this book is about the mind it is firmly based in the concrete world.
5.0 out of 5 stars A winner !,
This review is from: Umbrella (Paperback)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.
4.0 out of 5 stars A lesson on ageing,
This review is from: Umbrella (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?
4.0 out of 5 stars Umbrella,
This review is from: Umbrella (Kindle Edition)It is fair to say that this is very much a marmite book - you will either go with the flow, read and enjoy, or struggle and hate this intriguing novel. It employs modernism, stream of consciousness and the storyline (such as it is) runs between times and characters. The novel takes the viewpoint of two main characters: the psychiatrist Dr Zachary Busner at Friern Hospital and patient Audrey Dearth.
When Busner begins work at Friern Hospital he is allocated two chronic wards. This is a place of endless corridors, psychiatric orderlies who employ "thump therapy" and patients who wear canvas tunics, said to resemble a uniform "for a slave labourer". Busner has an embittered wife, Miriam, and young children. He also has a brother who suffers from a mental illness and an interest in patients suffering from the somnolent-opthalmogic form of encephalitis lethargica ('sleepy sickness'). This came before the Spanish Flu epidemic at the end of WWI and Busner tells his wife about Audrey Dearth, a patient who may be one of hundreds scattered throughout asylums, who suffered the virus and have nothing psychologically wrong with them. Less than impressed, Miriam responds with a plea for him to show less enthusiasm and spend less time poring over patient notes and more with his family. Yet Busner visits other doctors who disagreed with the original diagnosis and attempts to investigate other patients with the same possible condition.
This novel veers between Busner's story and that of patient Audrey Dearth. We are taken through Audrey's life, from her childhood onwards and from Busner's investigations to his memories in later years. I know the building he writes about well, as I live near it, and thought he captured the sheer size and scale of the place beautifully. This is not an easy read - there is a place for both nice relaxing books and ones that require concentration and commitment. Although this book can be difficult at times - you need to keep your mind on the text to know who and when you are reading about - it is worth perservering with and it is enjoyable, with characters you care about, and it is the characters that matter in any novel.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable novel from one of today's most original writers .,
This review is from: Umbrella (Kindle Edition)It is worth mentioning at the outset that this novel will not appeal to everyone - which is part, but only part, of its attraction. It is not an easy novel to come to terms with since it uses a somewhat experimental technique where there are few paragraphs, long rambling sentences, italicised words for no immediately apparant reason, sudden leaps in time and place (often in mid-sentence) and some difficult concepts. However, if you enjoy an author at the height of his powers, and also enjoy the sheer exuberent possibilities of the English language, you will probably like this book.
The story follows the life of Audrey Death from around 1910 to 2010, who falls ill with the influenza which killed about one third of its victims. Audrey doesn't die, but she does fall into a coma from which she is briefly awoken some fifty years later by a doctor using a new, powerful but temporary drug. The story is emotionally charged, moving and very humane and plunges into a London which has changed irretrievably over the intervening period.
This is a thoroughly stimulating and thought-provoking novel of great character and intelligence. It requres patience, but offers in return enormous reward.
19 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A challenging read - fantastic!,
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Umbrella by Will Self