Umbrella isn’t an easy read. Will Self’s latest novel spans multiple timelines and protagonists without chapters or even paragraph breaks between scenes. A sentence might start on a battlefield in 1918 but end in present-day London, with no way of telling where one scene ends and the next begins. It’s a sprawling, hefty book that demands careful reading to simply understand what’s going on in a given moment. But Umbrella rewards the effort with a fully realized, tragic portrait of mental health and English life in the 20th century.
The main thrust of the novel takes place in 1971, and concerns psychiatrist Zack Busner and his patient Audrey De’Ath, who has been in a vegetative state since the end of World War I. Quickly entranced by Audrey’s peculiar physical tics, Busner tries to cure her and learn the genesis of her disease. Self uses this as a platform to expand Umbrella’s scope, reaching forward and back in time to give context to the psychiatrist’s goal. As Busner attempts to get closer to Audrey, the narrative jumps to Audrey’s youth at the turn of the century, and likewise moves to 2012, where Busner remembers his old patient while dealing with his own impending mortality. Not content with only three intersecting narratives, Self also introduces storylines for Audrey’s two brothers: Stanley and Albert, both of whom are changed by The Great War.
These intersecting plotlines create a precarious experience where one moment in time spontaneously blooms out of another, superseding what came before, much like the various psychiatric methods used on Audrey as the eras pass and she grows older. This makes much of the book hard to follow, but Self is obviously uninterested in whether every single sentence is understood. The book’s frustrating jumps in time highlight the constant struggle between the fluidity of memory and the rigid nature of narrative, as storytelling tries to formalize the jumbled reminiscences of Audrey’s past. Neither memory nor narrative has its way in Umbrella, and that’s ultimately the novel’s biggest problem.
There are too many loose ends at the close of Umbrella for it to really reach a satisfying conclusion, especially regarding Stanley whose story becomes an extended fantasy sequence that doesn’t fit with the rest of the book’s authentic portrayal of 1918 England. As Self piles on memory after memory, he never creates a through-line that links them all in more than a tangential way. The result feels a bit like free jazz, with a number of competing solos playing over each other. Each particular storyline is beautifully rendered, and has its own distinct plot, but Umbrella never wraps all of them together to create a complex, cathartic whole.
But the book is a fascinating read, and Self’s prose is so beautiful and assured that it feels authentic even as it renders confusion. It’s a funny, sad, surreal novel that aims high and reaches most of its lofty goals. Modernism fans will be glad to see a current author who so strongly captures the form pioneered by Proust, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, and Umbrella only falls short by comparison with those classics.