Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Forces of nature observed (Books - Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman)

I'm really glad that I won a copy of Maile Chapman's Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto from Michelle because, if it had been a book I had found on my own, I'm not sure if I would have finished it. That is not to say that, after having done so, I didn't think it a worthwhile read - I did. But this is a singular book, its territory unfamiliar and a little uncomfortable for me: feminine and somewhat medically graphic. It was set in Finland in a convalescent hospital in the early twentieth century - almost a feminine counterpart to that monument of convalescent of hospital novels, The Magic Mountain. This one chronicles the lives of its staff, particularly Sunny, a recently arrived American nurse who leaves behind her a shadowy past, and residents, particularly Julia, a cantankerous retired tango dancer from Denmark. Patients from two distinct classes occupy the hospital. Those on the lower floors are poorer, while those on the upper floor are wealthy and the legitimacy of their diagnosis is doubtful to some observers.

The writing suited the setting, stark, angular, the narrative alternating between third-person and first-person-plural, for reasons that don't reveal themselves until late in the novel:
Propped and reading in the bed, pages moving behind the windows of the high private rooms, sometimes we're the ones doing that, but mostly we're happy downstairs, turning, moody in the black dress, hairpins in firelight, a winter tango, staring over one another's shoulders for a slow display of emotion in the cold, quiet country. Just for fun, just among these friends. And in retrospect we love the other creatures too, the dark birds and small siili, our little hedgehog, and that bowl of fish near the heating panel in the Solarium. The hedgehog we think we caught in photos. The fish are floating, pulsing like blood cells in the eye, pulsing like piano and especially violin, like a record turning unattended, fires lit and flaring against the windows, bright against the shadows of the blackening birch, the cedars, and the ever-present pines, the backdrop, the audience, it is so hard to catch attention from the pines. And they are thicker now. But we love the pines outside the windows of that room where we pushed back the couches and practiced, harmlessly. We love everything that we did. Including even the burden of hot water in the bowels, the squeeze in the viscera and trace of metal in the mouth, damp hear at the hairline, and the hidden unpleasantness that returns along with blood. We love these memories because pain is a haunting beyond the muscles and repetition serves a purpose. We are happy that we're happy now, and happy that we're safe now, and so we'll repeat this for you: we are safe and happy now, and that is what we wanted.
The narrative imposed upon this reader a deliberate pace. This novel resisted quick, cursory reading in a way that, ultimately, suited the long winter months during which its events unfolded. In some ways, one could say that the petty personal politics of the patients and staff were the substance of the novel's action, but really, this novel was a chronicle of change - the deliberate kind that comes as a result of some decision, as well as the more gradual kind that inevitably occurs as a function of nature's larger forces. The petty politics that comprise this novel's plot then, arise as a result of how well the characters' lives prepared them to react to change. What I most admired about Chapman's book was her delicately detailed observations of this subtle process. What I enjoyed least is the number of times I became aware that this novel was written on a Fulbright Scholarship in Finland. There were times that the content of her research or the process of learning the Finnish language transferred itself a bit baldly to the page. But all-in-all, Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto steeped me in a novel setting and introduced me to touching and memorable characters. It facilitated a change in my pace, that let me observe a shift among a group of characters that was both subtle and immense.


Michelle said...

I'm so curious to see your response here. I hadn't thought of how 'feminine' the book must appear, although you are absolutely right about that. It is thoroughly feminine, perhaps even a little hysterically so. And the Finland research didn't jar me, so I forgave that aspect of the book. I'm glad you ended up finishing it, however, despite your initial misgivings. Funny how books can be so different to different readers. I loved the wintry and stark and slightly bizarre aspect of the book, but it may have been the particular moment I read it as well.

Ted said...

Michelle -
Thank you again for this book - I really found it worthwhile, and not something I would have particularly chosen for myself. I thought its pacing particularly artful and the climax insidious.