by Maile Chapman
How could I resist a title like Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto? I’m a sucker for a good, long title, and with a cover blurb comparing the Maile Chapman to Patricia Highsmith, I knew I had to read it. Trouble is, I over-hyped myself based on the title alone. Perhaps having already been desensitized to Highsmith-esque macabre, the book felt understated by comparison. But though the degree of my appreciation may have faltered, I did enjoy immersing myself in the unfamiliar environment.
Set in Finland during the 1920s, the story follows American nurse Sunny Taylor as she cares for patients on the upper floor of a convalescent home. The home sits in a remote part of the forest, with more serious patients occupying the lower floors. The “up-patients” she cares for, however, are women of means, and women prone to drama and loneliness. The have created their own community, away from the rest of the world, where their every need is met on a routine schedule. They have decided that they’d rather spend life locked away with one another than to deal with the bleakness of the world, and in the process, lose grip on the veracity of their ailments.
“The timber wives are always up-patients. They really don’t need much care.”
That would be fine, she thought. That would be quite tolerable, because even though in her mind’s ear Sunny heard the spoiled advance voices of the timber wives making their frivilous, unnecessary requests — bring me applesauce, rub my feet, where’s my hairbrush, now hold the mirror steady while I fix myself — she knew there would never be a repeat of the crushing responsibilities she’d faced in her off hours during the last several years, at home, with her mother.
Placid and professional, Sunny oversees the addition of a new woman to the home, Julia Dey, an ex-ballroom dancer with a grab-bag of conditions. She’s in chronic pain, and therefore chronically cranky, and it is from there that the subdued atmosphere of the home begins shifting. There is also the arrival of Dr. Peter Weber, who wonders why it is that the women are allowed to occupy valuable bed space. The women are resistant to change, and as the season shifts into the darkness of winter, they have trouble remaining content.
Suvanto is not a fast-paced place, nor is the Finnish forest. Entertainment revolves around walks outside, records, and homemade games, and everything, including the nurse’s intercom system, is done in hushed tones. Sometimes, it was all a bit too quiet and slow for me. I kept waiting for the ominous feelings implied by the jacket copy to fully materialize, but seen primarily through the eyes of Sunny, Suvanto is stuck in the muted fog of depression. For that’s what these women are — some degree of depressed.
But she’d wanted this — wasn’t this what she wanted? Not to be relied upon too acutely? It is uncomfortable to see that this is no better, that, in some ways, this is worse than the way she lived before. Here, without anything truly at risk, she feels like she’s merely pretending, in everything. The work is nearly meaningless, and life is nothing but a search for meaning, yes? Isn’t that right? And if these little purple carbon marks signify nothing more than many, many hours spent indulging the self-absorption of the up-patients, then doesn’t that mean that for as long as she remains here, completing such tasks, she is wasting her energy? Wasting her life?
Still, this is not some standard “Person Dissatisfied with Job” book, nor is it a historical exercise. Chapman creates a singular universe that, apart from modern medical advancements and some mention of the world outside, feels separate from any specific time period. The chill of winter is palpable, and so is the increasing exhaustion. All these women have trouble sleeping and have trouble feeling capable in some aspect of their lives. The women who have become longtime residents have given in to whatever has made them weak and have willfully pushed themselves into true convalescence. When one knows the signs of depression, and the erratic effect it can have on a person’s brain, the book’s underlying themes become that much more apparent. Though these characters are mainly women, this isn’t a story about Women, in the grand sense of things. To say that only women would be prone to self-perpetuating mental and physical decline would be awfully reductive and would ignore any man with depression. Indeed, when one takes a closer look at Dr. Weber, the signs are there too:
This is why, this year, she now recognizes the signs of insomnia in Dr. Peter. She sees the effects of weeks without good sleep slowly building. His face looks as if he’s wiped it on one of the deep blue tissue papers folded between the nurses aprons to keep them sharply white, and the thin skin around his eyes has begun to darken like the shadow of his beard. She recognizes it too in his written orders, increasingly vague, and in his handwriting, which has become, at times, almost unreadable.
“Dr. Peter?” she asks, wanting to venture a suggestion or two, from experience.
But when he looks up, preoccupied, impersonal, waiting, irritated, she says nothing to him. Feels nothing for him.
Yes, some of the insomnia — especially in the newcomers — can be attributed to the shortened daylight hours during wintertime at that latitude, but Chapman’s use of present tense in this novel says a lot. The people are stuck in the thick of what ails them, some unwilling to progress, and the ones that desire change have a hard time seeing the way out.
It’s a well-written book, a well-told book, but also a particular sort of book. With much of the action taken off-stage, it’s certainly unlike any book I’ve read in quite awhile. Is the Highsmith comparison apt? Perhaps. There is no outrage or revulsion when it comes to blood or moral questions, though Chapman is nowhere near as sinister. For a lot of readers, that’s a good thing — and presumably Chapman herself does not have the misanthropic worldview that Highsmith did — but like I said, I might be desensitized at this point. Once you’ve read about a chimp gleefully murdering its home-robbing owner, or a man killing a random passerby to ease the pain of having a mentally challenged son — Well, middle-aged ladies discussing their bowel movements and the threat of cracking ice doesn’t seem so unsettling. Still, I would welcome reading Maile Chapman’s other work. Though Suvanto is a different book, it does not make a big show out of being different. It is what it is, and that, I really respect.
Full disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book. I thank them for including me on their list of book blogger contacts, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.