Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto

A hospital in 1920s Finland is the perfect setting for a book about isolation, insomnia and the onset of madness.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto is a skillfully restrained psychological thriller set at a convalescent home in rural 1920s Finland, an apt location for a novel about isolation, insomnia and the onset of madness. For narrator Sunny Taylor, an American nurse who leaves home after the death of her mother, Finland is a place where “quiet and routine settle even more firmly with the snow,” and the book’s subtle, slow accrual of moodiness and dark humor feeds the smoldering ambiance. Maile Chapman’s precise, controlled language captures the crushing monotony of hospital life (the dispensing of medications, the saturated dressings that must be changed at intervals, the log where every action is to be recorded), and these repetitions contribute to a sense of constricting, institutionalized doom. Not since the Overlook Hotel has a place so enormous felt so claustrophobic.

Nurse Taylor tends to the needs of the “up patients” on the top floor—women who are demanding but not seriously ill, some of whom visit Suvanto seasonally, like a spa (“It smells so clean here,” a returning patient remarks. “I love hospitals!”). But there is danger in becoming “accustomed to care,” and the constant attention reduces the women to spoiled children; they are petty, impulsive and very cruel. The cold, remote setting impedes upon the mental states of everyone—Nurse Taylor included. As a visiting husband observes, these women are not sick but bored: “This is a life without surprises. This is torpor.”

While the Suvanto chapters are excellent, the novel’s incorporation of historical facts (e.g., Finland’s uneasy relations with Russia) is not always effortless. Readers looking for dramatic conclusions and clear resolutions will be disappointed. Still, Chapman’s decision to maintain a stance of detachment, even during the novel’s devastating and slow denouement, is a brilliant move. “One danger of constant observation is that all the world, even tragedy, comes to seem anecdotal,” Nurse Taylor observes. Chapman’s story, however, is the opposite of tossed-off; its devastations are deliberate and undeniable, as if etched into a block of ice.

Chapman reads Wed 21 at The New School, J.M. Kaplan Hall.

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By Maile Chapman (Graywolf, $23)