Moving between Edwardian London and a suburban mental hospital in 1971, Umbrella exposes the twentieth century’s technological searchlight as refracted through the dark glass of a long term mental institution. While making his first tours of the hospital at which he has just begun working, maverick psychiatrist Zachary Busner notices that many of the patients exhibit a strange physical tic: rapid, precise movements that they repeat over and over. One of these patients is Audrey Dearth, an elderly woman born in the slums of West London in 1890. Audrey’s memories of a bygone Edwardian London, her lovers, involvement with early feminist and socialist movements, and, in particular, her time working in an umbrella shop, alternate with Busner’s attempts to treat her condition and bring light to her clouded world. Busner’s investigations into Audrey’s illness lead to discoveries about her family that are shocking and tragic.
This was difficult to read. That's an understatement, this was crazy difficult to read. The transition between times and people are so smooth you might be five sentences in before registering the change. I constantly went back and reread, something I rarely ever do. Every narrative is disjointed and full of both fantasy and reality so that it makes it all the harder to figure out who you're listening to. When you put this book down, it's difficult...so difficult to pick it up again. Just five minutes and you've lost where you are and have to reread.
Nevertheless I enjoyed the style so that kept me going to the end. It wasn't really the story which was a bit like Awakenings (which I read) with a lot of The Great War feel. Come to think of it, I'm not sure there was real Great War bits-they might've been fantasy. It's hard to assign a point or overall objective to the book and in many ways it seemed like an act of literary fiction undertaken to "show what I can do"-you might recall I didn't like that about NW. However, if you have the time to devote to reading it in large and long chunks, it's a book you fall into and it carries you along. Making my way through this experiment in unfixed regard and prose fragmentation felt like sloshing my way through an even more modernist version of Joyce. The characters do things but it's hard to concentrate on their feelings what with the fragmentation and song fragments in their thoughts. I mean, every blurb talks about the tragic revelations...I must have missed the emotion... This is not a book for everyone or the casual reader but I did enjoy it.
(as an aside, some people seem put off by the old vocab (archaic, it is not) and cockney spelling. All I can say is that it's easier than Trainspotting in terms of dialect and the vocabulary only occasionally gave me a misstep...but then again I have been heard to mention in casual conversation that I am from septentrional leanings)