Brainy and outlandish, though still in the mainstream of modernist fiction, this book captures a number of eccentric voices and sends the reader running to the dictionary.
The epigraph to the novel is, fittingly, from Joyce’s Ulysses: “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella,” and Self offers us an account of Audrey Death and her two brothers, Albert and Stanley. Originally Audrey De’Ath, her name transmutes to Deerth and then to Dearth, a prime example of Self’s—dare I say self-consciously?—Joycean word play. By whatever name, Audrey was born in 1890, came of age in the Edwardian era, involved herself in the suffragette movement, worked for a while in an umbrella shop, became ill with encephalitis lethargica (aka “sleeping sickness”) toward the end of World War I and was institutionalized in 1922 at a mental hospital in north London. Now it’s 1971, and Dr. Zachary Busner, a recurring character in Self’s novels and stories, tries to treat her—and other sufferers from the illness—to bring them out of their catatonia. Self plunges the reader into the twisted conscious minds of both Audrey and Zach, a feat that’s in equal parts exhilarating and bewildering. Consider the following description of a pianist Audrey had heard in her past: “Ooh, yairs, isn’t it luvverly, such fine mahoggerny—while the fellow’s knees rose and fell as he trod in the melody, Doo-d’doo, doo d’doo, doo d’dooo, doo d’dooo, triplets of notes going up and down.” The novel disdains such literary conventions as chapters and just plunges us into the inner worlds of its characters.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this novel is uncompromising and relentless in the demands it makes upon the reader, yet there’s a lyrical, rhapsodic element that continually pulls one into and through the narrative.