THE BLOG
06/15/2010 05:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Women on the Verge: Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto

Your Presence Is Requested At Suvanto by Maile Chapman is a strange but addictive book about the shackling of female will -- and what happens when the restraints fail. Suvanto is a sanatorium for women, set in a remote forest beside a lake in Finland. The hospital is full of patients with all kinds of complaints but the top floor is reserved for special cases. There, on the top floor, are the patients with certain female ailments, mostly unnamed but uniformly debilitating. The chief and common ailment suffered by all these women is their desire to be away from the demands of their usual lives, and particularly the demands of the men in their lives. But even shut away from men, the women remain constrained by roles imposed by their gender, roles of caretaker or muse or sexual receptacle or bitch.

Sunny, an American nurse, has come to this remote corner of Finland to care for the women of the top floor. Even the toughest of patients, the newly-arrived aging dancer named Julia, is a relief after the years Sunny spent caring for her very ill mother. Sunny believes it will be easy to remove herself from her patients when the day's work is through; after so much time spent living only for her mother, Sunny wants time for herself and her own thoughts and needs. But Sunny's time alone thinking of herself is unsettling, and her relationships at the hospital become complicated. The needs of the patients are varied and not always definable, and their demands are frequent. The peace Sunny hoped to find is elusive, especially when a new doctor arrives at the hospital.

Chapman wrote her book based on years of research, including a year spent as a Fulbright scholar in Finland. In her novel she captures the loveliness and the isolation that is Finland, physically (geographically and landscape-wise), linguistically (it is one of the most difficult languages to speak), and spiritually (with its old traditions of healing and of using the sauna for everything from birthing to dying). Her chapters, rich with details, move forward to portray women caught in a world beyond their control, and by using a shifting of narration between second and third person, Chapman involves us in their helplessness. Sometimes the voice of the narrator is omniscient, like a doctor; sometimes it is prescient of events still to come, like a seer; and sometimes it is deliberately confounding, like life itself.

The final spin of events was a complete surprise to me, jarring and exciting and scary. I was shaken to the core by the stunning twist and gasping at the question of complicity: who, when and why?

The constrictions of womanhood; the lacerating use of illness as power; and the fine line between self-immolation and self-awareness, are just some of the provoking themes explored in this eerie and captivating novel.