Last night I finished, after an inexcusable delay, Maile Chapman’s novel, now the third book on the GFBA longlist that I’ve read. This one has also made it to the shortlist stage, and it’s easy to see why. Exceptionally assured, “Suvanto” has few of the rough edges that marks out a debut work of fiction.
Set amongst the hypochondriacs and psychologically damaged residents of the eponymous woman’s hospital in 1920s Finland, the book manages to combine clinical precision and a kind of reticent poetry in its prose. The main character, Sunny, an American nurse hiding the emotional turbulence of a difficult upbringing behind a mask of calm professionalism, could easily have turned into a cliche, but Chapman’s control of and sympathy for her characters makes her gradual, unravelling disillusionment completely convincing. Julia, the former dance instructor who has aged from a bohemian youth to a disease-ridden, obstructive old age, is perfectly written (an Oscar awaits anyone who plays her if there’s ever a film adaptation of the book). In a novel which ends with a brutal murder, and which unflinchingly explores the hidden lives of the hospital’s damaged residents, Chapman still manages to convey a stifling atmosphere of routine, stasis, and the self-obsessions of the ill. Suvanto is a refuge for these women, the “up-patients”, the English-speaking wives and relatives of men who are working in Finland’s timber industry. Only when a new doctor starts the arrangements to transform Suvanto into a maternity hospital (the obstetric details in these parts I found extremely uncomfortable) do the residents, and Sunny, begin to lift themselves out of their self-indulgent passivity.
Chapman spares us none of the detail of the pre-penicillin age – the lingering effects of gonorrhoea, the deformed extrusions of tubercular bones, and all the ailments euphemistically covered by the residents’ male relatives as “women’s issues.” Her gaze is turned as much on the patients’ emotional lives as their physical problems, and memories of lives beginning to be derailed by war and illness are beautifully sketched in. For all their childish bickering in the wards, their obsessions over status and the exact preparations of meals, the women still clearly need each other to validate their past lives and to provide an audience for the rehearsal of increasingly distant memory.
I said in an earlier post that I think this book will win the GFBA, and after finishing it I stand by the judgement. It’s excellent, and I would urge you to read it.