From page one of Maile Chapman’s Your Presence in Requested at Suvanto, the reader is invited into a somewhat surreal and disturbing landscape. I usually try to avoid using qualifiers like ‘somewhat’ but I feel it’s important in this case. This is realistic fiction, but one that highlights the more bizarre, fantastic elements of its unique situation.

The novel is set in the 1920s and opens with the arrival of Julia at Suvanto, a hospital in rural Finland. The hospital is an ordinary hospital, except for the top floor which serves as a temporary home for women in need of a rest cure. This isn’t a psychiatric ward in the strictest sense, but the women are a bit unhinged, emotionally fragile, unable to take care of themselves. Many of the women are Americans, wives of executives in the flourishing timber industry. Others are Danish, some are Swedish or Finnish. Julia is a troublemaker from the start. She does not want to be at Suvanto and does her best to disrupt its established routines and upset many of the other women. 

Aside from Julia, the novel’s most important character is Sunny, the head nurse on the top floor. Sunny is American and chose to come and work at Suvanto to escape from painful memories of her former life in the United States. Sunny is a tightly controlled individual with impeccable nursing skills, never upset, never flustered. She is the perfect foil for the ‘up-patients’ with their leaking emotions and often childish behaviors.

I’m sure you can guess this balance will necessarily be disturbed, and it is, as soon as a new obstetrician arrives from the United States with grand ideas for furthering his career. He wants to help Finland learn the Caesarian section technique and he’s willing to practice on non-maternity patients, removing the uteruses of older women past child-bearing age. Many of the up-patients, including Julia, fit this profile.

This plotline is the largest part of the novel, insomuch as it feeds the ending (see my post on Suvanto’s relationship to The Bacchae), but there are many smaller stories going on around it, and together they create this wonderfully eerie tension.

The writing is also impeccable – careful, subtle descriptions, an uncommon narrative perspective blending a voice-driven omniscient narrator with the third person plural, and attentive pacing. The voice-driven omniscient narrator is a real treat, smooth and flawless, with wordy insights (often verging on judgments) into the inner lives of each character. I haven’t been this impressed with début fiction in a long while. I can’t wait to see what else Chapman will come out with.

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman, Graywolf Press, April 2010