Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto
Graywolf Press: 272 pp., $23
“Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto” is eerie for three reasons. First: It is Maile Chapman’s first novel, and it is shockingly, bracingly good. One expects a little more wobble in a first novel. Second: Reduced to its naked parts (plot, character, setting), it is a cinematically, unforgettably strange, Poe-faced tale (if writers still took laudanum, one might suspect, but no). Third: Chapman has created, above all, an atmosphere, a biosphere, a climate utterly unlike the one any of us readers live in, and made it familiar. Now we know intimately, for better or worse, what it feels like to live and work in an institution for patients with female troubles (hysteria, syphilis, gonorrhea, unnamed fears and womb-related maladies) deep in the woods in Finland in some numberless year in the not-too-distant past.
How does she do it? More importantly, is this any way to read a novel, always peering behind the curtain? In the case of “Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto,” we must, if only to peel it off our skin. A Greek chorus begins and ends the novel, the voices of the patients: “We love these memories because pain is a haunting beyond the muscles,” they chant, “and repetition serves a purpose. We are happy that we’re happy now, and happy that we’re safe now, and so we’ll repeat this for you: we are safe and happy now, and this is what we wanted.”
Suvanto is a retreat where “English-speaking wives hide from the frozen streets and golden buildings of the Finnish cities and the darkness and silence of the outlying timber towns.” These women turn themselves over to the nurses and orderlies and the presiding doctor, Peter Weber. There is occasional violence — an arm squeezed too tightly, a patient fastened to her bed with boards and locks. There is the violence of the long winter outside the windows, the deep darkness. There is the violence of the marriages left behind — so much is unspoken. There is the violence of so many wounded women: “Every day there are moments in which strange feelings color the walls and floors and we find ourselves standing at windows, at junctures, standing at the doors and looking out. Because we don’t know how much time has passed, or indeed whether any time has passed.”
Some of the women, like Julia, once a beautiful dancer, have been abandoned by their husbands, packed and shipped, arriving by taxi, deposited on the steps like unwanted children. At Suvanto, they fold into their grievances; they disintegrate; their physical and emotional deterioration is foul and off-putting: “Her nightstand is already cluttered with lotions and moisturizers, acrid-smelling earplugs and the wisps of cotton they arrive in, water glasses, tissues.” They think too much, especially about themselves.
Sunny is the young head nurse. She works hard to be controlled, calm and soothing. She is frighteningly competent, American. But the longer she stays, the more she is dragged into the patients’ diseases. Despite daily bicycle rides and rigorous attention to detail, it gets harder to maintain her professional distance, “paradoxically above and yet in service to the other women.” Sunny knows how to do everything, but her standards for herself are crushing, and there is the utter loneliness of her position. “Sunny stands, stricken by the potential for anonymity, for losing oneself in the silence, in the cold, in the trees that had earlier seemed tame.”
Chapman brings us further under the skin of her characters than we would normally care to go. And yet it is all the unspoken things that move the novel forward. There is so much we don’t know about what really goes on in the hospital (especially at night). There is so much we don’t know about the lives of these unreliable characters.
We do know there is a kind of cultish alchemy; some kind of magic. And we know that the doctor is perfecting and experimenting with various treatments: hysterectomies, cesarean births for younger patients in another ward. When a patient dies after a surgery that Peter performs, we can feel her comrades’ fury, just under the ice. They go out into the night after she dies to watch a comet; in their nightgowns with their coats thrown over: “There is a collar of clouds waiting on the horizon. Two of the ladies bring out binoculars from coat pockets, and these are passed from hand to hand so that all can look at the comet above, visible now and moving so slowly that it seems motionless in the dark sky. As motionless as the persuasively scarred face of the bright, nearly full moon.”
Something terrible happens at Suvanto, but I can’t tell you what it is. You can know that afterward routine sews over the ripped lives. The institution itself goes on, a monument to hubris; the arrogance of medicine. “A building shows its character when seen standing in the midst of swirling snow, with a pale blue wind scraping around the corners and lights from within showing a conviction of permanence. The black trees beyond the northwestern corner are turning silver again under a renewed freeze.”
Chapman shows a kind of fearless momentum. Who knows where it will lead her next?
Salter Reynolds is a writer living in Los Angeles.