Saturday, February 19, 2011

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto, by Maile Chapman

I have no idea what happened at the end of this book. The conclusion was so intentionally murky that I didn't get it at all. Plot, however, is not really the point of this novel. It's all about atmosphere and repressed emotion.

That makes it easy to synopsize: Sunny is head nurse at Suvanto, a hospital in rural Finland that caters, in part, to a clientele of wealthy not-sick but not-well women. These "up-patients," so called because they live on the top floor of the building, are in many cases there to hide out from life as much as to recover from illness. Sunny herself is hiding out, having fled the United States (I think) soon after the protracted death of her mother.

There is no indication of what is going on in the world outside. In fact, I have only the vaguest idea of when the story takes place. I originally thought it was the 1940's, but then decided it was more like the twenties... or thirties? There is no mention of war, which usually provides an anchor for novels set in the first half of the 20th century, particularly in Europe. If the characters are between wars, they don't ever mention the one that's past. Likewise, personal details about all of the characters are shrouded, hinted at, and sometimes revealed in intriguing but frustratingly brief nuggets.

In contrast, both the setting and present events are told in beautiful detail. I have such vivid pictures in  my mind of the hospital hallways, the patients, the rooms. Corny as it sounds, I can feel the heat of the sauna, and hear the rare muffled sounds of the forest in the snow. Reading this book is a profoundly sensory experience.

If one wanted to escape, an island off the coast of Finland might be the best place to do it. The language is extremely hard to master, the people private in the extreme, and it's dark a whole lot of the time. A huge hospital in a remote ice-locked bay seems like a setting for an intensely spooky story.  There is one creepy event near the end, but for the most part the disturbing stuff is all internal.

Each personal story is tinged with a sense of the difficulty of being a woman. Some characters are pushed into being caretakers,  some mildly abused by the men in their lives,  others scared of sexuality. Ultimately, the up-patients create a catty society of one-upmanship that is not unlike a high school clique, while Sunny, the outsider, flees from a chance at real friendship. All of this is gently blanketed by the calm daily routine of the hospital, just as the footprints of miscreants are covered with the deep winter snow.


  1. I've been wanting to go to Finland to see hang out with Sami people. Maybe I'll check myself into a hospital for a while and zone out while I'm there- but only if they have a sauna and decent lunches.

  2. I would absolutely love to be sent to this place for a month or two...