A Gothic Novel with a Twist

In Your Presence is Required at Suvanto Maile Chapman presents an unnerving treatise on the effects of age on the body and isolation on the mind.

Maile Chapman is that rare breed of writer who, despite not having previously published a novel, already has a loyal following based solely on her short stories. This is testament to the quality of her writing and the originality of her voice, which are in evidence in her outstanding debut, Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, a gothic mystery set in a remote rural convalescent hospital in Finland, in the early part of the 20th century. Suvanto is a women’s sanatorium, where the lower floors operate as a medical hospital for the local Finnish women, but the top floor is given over to an array of eccentric and enigmatic characters who suffer from emotional and physical afflictions, who mostly treat the hospital as a refuge and a means of escaping their lives and themselves. It is a novel pulsing with atmosphere and Chapman shows herself to be a writer capable of crafting a story, which is as disturbing as it is rewarding.

The novel opens with the arrival at Suvanto of Julia Dey, a petulant former ballroom dance instructor whose admittance to the hospital is very much against her will. She refuses to conform to the established routine, playing the role of haughty outsider every time the group gathers. Soon after, Pearl arrives with a flourish of fur and jewels. A self-indulgent socialite, Pearl exudes privilege and superiority over the other women, playing them off against each other, rewarding them with her attention. Over the course of the novel, Chapman slowly and skillfully reveals their backgrounds. Once their own reasons for being at Suvanto become apparent, it is hard not to pity them and their situation, despite how little they do to illicit sympathy in their dealings with the nurses and the other patients. Chapman also uses these characters to explore the female psyche, focussing on how our perception of ourselves changes as we age and how we each deal or don’t deal with the indignities of getting old.

It is evident from the first pages that Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is set in a time and place far removed from, yet, not wholly alien to the majority of readers. This was, as Chapman explains, always her intention: “The writer, Reif Larsen, describes a kind of ‘shimmering timelessness’ that he’d wanted to create [in his first novel]. I love that phrase. It describes the effect I wanted for Suvanto: protected, insulated, isolated, set apart from the world but rooted in it.” Chapman also cites The Shining as a major influence on the story, in particular “the snow, the isolation, the large, institutional, impersonal setting, and the possibility of human madness and/or supernatural energies.” Chapman has an obvious talent for evocative, lyrical writing and Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is suffused with beautiful descriptive prose that not only sets the scene in the most basic sense but also creates a sensation of otherworldliness. The setting and the hospital itself manage to be simultaneously real and unreal; almost hovering on the edge of perception.

This impression of timelessness and dislocation is further enhanced by Chapman’s use of the present tense together with an omniscient narrative voice, as she explains: “I took inspiration from The Bacchae of Euripedes for this novel, and the omniscient narrator came from the original Greek chorus that would have delivered the prologue and epilogue and generally kept you informed throughout the play. The communal nature of life at the hospital seemed to match this idea of a plural voice. I liked the immediacy of the present tense, and it seemed to suit the general mood of Greek drama, that heavy cogs have been set in motion underfoot, and the consequences will present themselves shortly.” Together, the abstract, near ethereal setting and the chorus-like narration lend the novel a gothic feel, which is a genre that fascinates Chapman and is an obvious influence on the structure of her story and her writing. However, Chapman didn’t want to bow to convention and write another dark tale set in a brooding castle or a haunted house. She was far more interested in exploring the juxtaposition of gothic suspense unfolding in a clean well-lit space. In fact, it is that combination of the gothic with the clinical hospital setting that gives Chapman’s novel such an ominous air.

The focus of the narrative is on the top floor of Suvanto where the “up-patients” reside. These women are either the wealthy wives of Americans working in Finland or equally wealthy Scandinavian women ­– all are looking for a retreat. Although Suvanto is a working hospital, it isn’t clear at first why the women are there. Some seem to be escaping the harsh winter; some appear to have a genuine medical need to be seen by a doctor; while others simply return year after year to take up their position in the unspoken hierarchy, leaving behind husbands and lives they cannot face. Bubbling underneath this undeclared role of the hospital, as a sort of spa resort, is the gradual realisation that most of the women are genuinely mentally or physically ill, to varying degrees. The characters, both at Suvanto and who appear in the back stories, suffer from the ravages of childbirth, illness and time. The effects on their ageing bodies and fragile psyches are disturbing and sobering. With the inclusion of such feminine themes and only a few male characters, it would be easy to call Your Presence is Required at Suvanto a feminist novel, but Chapman disagrees: “I did not want the book to come across as a feminist manifesto, as if the men were oppressing the women or the doctors had anything other than good intentions.” The doctors at Suvanto are minor characters, but one in particular, Dr Peter Weber, an American obstetrician, is key to the unfolding and pacing of the narrative in the final third of the novel.

As well as the up-patients, there are the nurses, including the archetypal Nurse Ratched-like character (Nurse Todd) and the head nurse on the top floor, Sunny Taylor. Sunny is an American recently arrived from the States, and the character who drives the narrative. She is calm, quiet and extremely competent, but it soon becomes clear that her efficiency and professionalism belie a deep sadness and a history that borders on the tragic. Chapman explains why she chose to tell the story through Sunny’s eyes: “I travel a lot, often solo, and there’s a definite inward turn when you’re in a new environment, but unable to share the experience. It forces you to weigh things up for yourself in a way you might not otherwise, and you internalise much more. Especially when there’s a language difference. That’s why I wanted to tell the story through Sunny as an American living and working abroad.” Sunny sees Suvanto as a means of escape, a clean break for the pain of her past; but when she starts to experience the illusory affects of chronic insomnia – added to the acute loneliness and almost insurmountable language barrier ­– she finds herself unravelling, unable to rationalise the strange events on the top floor. Chapman’s handling of Sunny’s character is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. Through Sunny Chapman explores how our environment (in this case represented by the weather and the solitude and to a lesser degree the Finnish customs) can seep into our souls and change the way we see ourselves.

Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is a novel that takes a range of common themes such as ageing, loneliness and escapism and creates a remarkably original piece of storytelling that stays with the reader long after finishing the last page. The haunting atmosphere and well-crafted characters draw you into a world where nothing is quite what it seems and no one is truly who they say they are. The novel has a measured tempo, no moment is rushed. Chapman takes her time to tell her tale, but the slow pace is misleading, as she steadily weaves together the different elements of the story until it reaches its tragic and shocking conclusion. The effects of ageing on our bodies and minds is clearly a subject that interests Chapman, and she intends to explore them from a different angle in her next novel: “I’m working on a novel about Alzheimer’s disease, memory, and the difficulties of caring for ageing parents. There’s also a lot about morbid fear of contagion and suspicion of science in there, too.” Given Chapman’s obvious skill and growing experience as writer, this will be one to look to forward to.

Your Presence is Required at Suvanto by Maile Chapman was published by Jonathan Cape in August 2010.

Rachel Hazelwood