Feature

Novel of the week: Umbrella by Will Self

A recent Man Booker Prize finalist, Umbrella follows the intersecting paths of a mental hospital clinician and a long-comatose female patient.

(Grove/Atlantic, $25)

Will Self’s unusually challenging ninth novel “deserves to be read,” said The Economist. A recent Man Booker Prize finalist, it unfolds across 400 pages that contain few paragraph breaks and plenty of Joycean stream-of-consciousness flourishes that might scare readers off. “This would be a shame.” As Umbrella zips back and forth through time to follow the intersecting paths of a mental hospital clinician and the long-comatose female patient whom he drugs into sentience in 1971, it proves to be as “compassionate and thrilling” as it is experimental. The purpose of Self’s “sensory-overloaded style” becomes clear when we reach 2010 and find the retired doctor wrestling with the morality of his actions, said Steven Moore in The Washington Post. His patient, Audrey Death, came of age in James Joyce’s era, and in adopting Joyce’s methods, Self not only brings to life that war-torn era: He also echoes and amplifies the modernists’ fears about the soul-destroying power of technological advance.

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