Book Quote:

“We’re nearly ready, we’re always almost ready and it takes only a little time for the vessels to flush and fill with memory, and then we can open our eyes, lift our heads, sit up in our beds, and turn to meet your gaze. We’ll tell you what we remember.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (JUL 15, 2011)

Nestled in the pristine Finnish woods is a sanatorium for women. It’s the 1920s and medicine and its accompanying attitudes towards women’s health is moving from Victorian ideas to more modern methods of treatment, but those shifts have not yet reached the women’s hospital at Suvanto. This vast multistoried building is still part spa for the wealthy wives of the male employees for the local timber company, and part hospital for the poor. This is a building with sharp physical and mental divisions between staff and patients and also between the patients themselves. The poor patients–those who are considered “really” ill are kept on the bottom floors, while the convalescing wives of the timber employees, called the “up-patients” lodge on the 5th floor.

American nurse, Sunny Taylor, arrives at Suvanto hoping to leave the memories of her mother’s protracted illness behind. Upon arrival, she’s assigned to administer to the up-patients on the top floor. Most of these women are not seriously ill–although they may suffer from a number of hysterical illnesses, age-related problems or perhaps just ennui–the result of the delicate, protected and largely synthetic lives they lead. Into this stifling atmosphere of hospital pajamas, organized games and medications, arrives Julia Dey, a former tango teacher dumped on the hospital by her husband.
There are hints that Julia may suffer from some sort of venereal disease, but she also suffers–as many middle-aged women do at Suvanto–from a “woman’s ailment.” In Julia’s case, she suffers from a prolapsed uterus. Sunny begins to find that she identifies with the patients rather than the rest of the nursing staff, and she’s particularly sympathetic to Julia.

Unlike Julia, who had no say in the fact she was sent to Suvanto, some of the women have chosen to stay at Suvanto and welcome the time as a break from their husbands. Indeed, some of the wealthy wives are regulars who return each year. These wives lead protected, hothouse lives, so Julia is a totally different being. For one thing she’s worked for a living and she’s led an exotic life. She’s also not an easy patient, and Julia’s refusal to cooperate causes the latent cruelty of the nurses to surface. Pearl Weber, one of the more popular women, is considered by her frustrated husband to be suffering from neurosis and actively making herself ill. The perfumed, powdered and cosseted Pearl becomes Julia’s unlikely friend.

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto is an incredibly creepy, disturbing novel, and throughout the story there’s a sense of malevolence and gathering menace. The hospital’s stagnant atmosphere shifts with the arrival of a male doctor who’s experimenting with some new surgical techniques, and the building is detailed in such a way that it becomes a vivid part of this story. The hospital exudes a sterility in which death, depression and hopelessness linger. Its intricate architecture includes soundproofing, passages and locked rooms–all things that echo the ideas of secrecy, separation and impenetrability. Yet oddly, most of the up-patients look forward to their rest at Suvanto. What does that say about their everyday lives?

Author Chapman cleverly allows the narrative to shift from third-person to first person plural, and this technique underscores the idea that while the hospital operates on a bland day-to-day-level, there’s an underlying culture between the female patients that’s largely impenetrable by the staff:

“We cared only for ourselves. We had large windows, and we watched the sky thicken with snow. We pulled open the metal door to the roof and positioned ourselves along the curving promenade, scraping our lounge chairs over the concrete, turning to absorb the winter sunlight through fur-lined hats and soft, generous coats. From the promenade you can see the cornerstone; we discovered this by carefully leaning out over the railing, into the air, looking down to where the building meets the ground. Pictures were taken, and we’d like to see them now, because we were beautiful then. We’d like to be beautiful again, and in memory we will be, and then we’ll tell you all about that winter, including the early deaths, some say preventable, some say one, some say three, that happened at Suvanto. We’re nearly ready, we’re always almost ready and it takes only a little time for the vessels to flush and fill with memory, and then we can open our eyes, lift our heads, sit up in our beds, and turn to meet your gaze. We’ll tell you what we remember.”

There’s a quote at the beginning of the book from The Bacchae, and it’s a quote that fits both the novel’s action and the relationships between the up-patients–women who are largely kept like expensive pets by their husbands, and when these women begin to suffer mentally from the shallowness of their caged lives, they’re shipped off to Suvanto for repair. The women may appear to be docile dolls with expensive habits, but there’s a rage and violence lurking beneath the text that Chapman captures perfectly. The hospital is a strictly hierarchal institution, and yet the up-patients operate, eventually, outside of that hierarchy as they challenge and then destroy it. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto is primarily a women’s novel for its exploration of women’s health (real and imagined) and that includes a number of female-specific issues and its strong feminist subtext.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 16 readers
PUBLISHER: Graywolf Press (May 24, 2011)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of: 

The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett



July 15, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Debut Novel, Family Matters, Finland, Mystery/Suspense, Unique Narrative

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