Nominated for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and described by John Banville as ‘Daring, exuberant and richly dense,’ Umbrella is the story of Audrey Death a young munitionette who falls ill with encephalitis lethargica in 1918, and psychiatrist Dr Zack Busner who tries to cure her with L-DOPA in 1971.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Oliver Sacks discovered the L-DOPA ‘cure’ in the 1960s and his experience treating victims of the disease is documented in his book Awakenings (later turned into the film of the same name). I read the book in high school while flirting with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist, and something about it has haunted me ever since.
Self’s book, I’m not so sure about, which is not to say that it isn’t an exceptional piece of literature. It is. So much so, you actually need a PhD in English or similar to really appreciate it. I’m still a month or so off submitting my thesis, so I found it a slight struggle. Switching (mid-sentence) between Audrey, Zack and Audrey’s brother’s point of view at different points in their lives, and narrated in third person and stream-of-consciousness (this also changes mid-sentence) the narrative is a post-postmodernist’s (or is it post-post-postmodernist?) homage to modernism. Like I said, jolly clever stuff.
Umbrella examines our self-awareness and the movement of the conscious self through space and time and through a changing society and the jumble of bric-a-brac that fills up our lives. It also explores each character’s transition from a useful cog to broken, discarded part in society’s machine and the characters’ resistance of these roles.
Would I recommend it? Depends on what you’re looking for in a book. From both technical and thematic perspectives, it’s innovative and complex and definitely worth a look. However, it is heavy going and locked me into a fairy weird headspace while I was reading it. Unless you’re really into Literature with a capital L, I wouldn’t rush out to grab a copy.
Meanwhile in real life…
Perhaps part of the reason I didn’t get as into Umbrella as I’d hoped was that it hit a little too close to home. On ANZAC Day I made a very brief trip back to Adelaide to scatter my Pa’s ashes. Not the one I wrote about back in January, my other grandfather. It’s been incredibly sad to lose them both within a year and makes me wish I didn’t live so far from home.
Pa passed away on ANZAC Day last year. He hadn’t been himself for a long time. Before he got sick he was a meticulous man. He kept a To Do list on a white board in the kitchen and had the neatest texta handwriting I’ve ever seen. When we visited, it was always him, not Nanna, that would make coffee for the adults and pour Snow Top for the grandkids, until we were old enough for the former. He was always humming the same few notes of a song and he loved to tell us about being in the Navy during the war. I don’t remember a visit where he didn’t share at least one story. But gradually, each of these little routines became confused, breaking down until they disappeared all together.
The last time I saw him he was in the hospital just before they moved him to a nursing home. He was very disoriented and didn’t know who I was, though he gave me a big hug when I left.
On ANZAC Day he was having one of his worse days and refused to eat. But they had the march on TV at the nursing home and when they played the last post, he suddenly shot out of his seat and stood to attention. He passed away later that afternoon.
This year, I went to the Dawn Service with my parents at Glenelg. They don’t live there anymore, but it’s the service we used to go to with Pa. For a long time it was held at Holdfast Shores Marina, but this year it was back down by the Glenelg Jetty overlooking the water, which was a beautiful coincidence, given Pa served at sea.
Later that morning, we met up with Nanna and the rest of the family to Shepherd’s Hill Recreation Park where Pa used to take the family running. There’s a hill that, as a little girl, I called ‘the top of the world’ because it looks over the city, and Pa had told Nanna that sounded like a good place for him. We found a big forked tree where we could say our goodbyes and where we can visit. As soon as Nanna picked it, the sun briefly showed itself and a chorus of birds cried out. That sounds ridiculous, like something out of an incredibly sappy film, so much so, I wouldn’t have made it up. I don’t believe in signs, or that there is anything other than the life we have, but it felt like he was being welcomed, and it makes me happy to know he’s there in that place he loved – that he’s a part of it.