Maile Chapman shows her immense talent and potential in this mesmerizing, hallucinatory foray into the psyche of patients and staff at Suvanto, a remote hospital in Finland. This debut novel is beautifully written in a sparkling, clear style that has the effect of a waking dream. In Your Presence Is requested at Suvanto Chapman has created a wonderful exposition of the mind in crisis.
Suvanto is a hospital in a remote part of Finland where, as well as standard hospital patients, there reside a group of privileged women who use the facility as a way to escape the world and re-gather their strength. Their ailments are both real and imaginary, of the body and of the mind. Many of these women only come to Suvanto for a part of the year, it is as much a rest as a medical necessity. Yet all of these “upper-floor” patients come to rely on the calm and the routine of hospital life as a way of settling and centering themselves.
Primarily responsible for the upper-floor women is Sunny Taylor. Sunny is an American nurse who has traveled to Finland for some space of her own following the protracted illness and death of her mother. She is the calm center of the threatening presence that is Suvanto. Indeed, it is her tightly controlled yet active attendance that allows the hospital to develop as a character in its own right. The author notes her affinity with The Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining, and the hospital in Suvanto has a similar aura of menace.
Into this environment comes Julia, a former dance teacher. She is bad tempered, mischievous, and difficult; nothing seems to suit her. She appears unable to settle into life at the hospital and is often at pains to be disruptive and to upset the other women. Sunny takes it upon herself to pierce the mystery surrounding Julia’s arrival at the hospital and her subsequent poor behavior.
While this is a novel about women, there is a strong male presence in the form of Dr Peter Weber. His characterization is problematic in that he exists as a counter to the involved empathy of Sunny, and could even be construed as misogynistic; however, he is far from disinterested or cold. He has come to Suvanto in order to save women. He has developed a new method of Caesarian section which will vastly improve the mortality rate of women in childbirth. He truly wants to do the right thing and has sacrificed much to put himself in this position. Yet in many ways he comes off as a villain.
This is not an action novel, nor is it a thriller. The action is slow paced; it builds and grows throughout the work in an almost predetermined manner. It is almost as if there is no escaping what is to come. The author herself notes the link between Suvanto and classical drama in that “the action is like a machine, it can’t be altered, and nobody really gets a happy ending,” and that certainly seems to be the case for most of the novel. Yet the ending does not conform to this formula. The ending is really not climactic, nor is it inevitable, yet it conforms to the story that has preceded it—it is true to the tale.
Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto is a very strong work from a new novelist of enormous promise. There is an undeniable pro-feminist subtext and style that calls to mind the works of authors such as Horace Walpole, Matthew Gregory Lewis, and Mary Shelley. Suvanto is dark and deep and clever. It is stunningly written and ultimately utterly captivating.