Maile Chapman’s Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto contains all the ingredients for a splendid gothic mystery. It features a cast of strange and secretive characters, a setting of chilly natural beauty (the story takes place in rural Finland) and an air of implicit violence. It is too bad, then, that the book snuffs out every whiff of suspense hinted at in its premise, offering instead a plodding narrative punctuated by missed opportunities.
The novel takes place in the early twentieth century at a women’s sanatorium called “Suvanto,” a facility that is “part hospital, part hotel” and home to a number of patients with medical and emotional afflictions of varying intensity. A warm afternoon in August marks the arrival of a patient named Julia Dey, a Danish dancer with a chronic venereal disease that has transformed her into a defensive and wary soul. Despite Julia’s loathing of her condition, the problems are not untreatable, and upon her arrival she is speedily diagnosed and attended to by an American nurse named Sunny Taylor. Like her patient, Sunny is a withholding specimen with an unhappy past. She struggles to abide by the Scandinavian ethos of sacrificing personal feelings for the greater good. She curbs her social instincts for friendly interruption and physical contact, both of which are frowned upon in her adopted country. She also takes to biking and attempts to learn Finnish, a language with fifteen noun cases.
The unpredictable Julia, however, proves a challenge to Sunny, who wonders “why there seems to be no structure in Julia’s bad behavior, why it seems that Julia makes up ideas for trouble out of whatever materials come to hand.” When signs appear that someone has been entering the hospital kitchen at night to stoke the fire and steal bits of meat, Sunny finds herself unnerved and suspicious of her patient. “Departures and arrivals are normal, rotations don’t trouble,” she thinks, “but it is a real wrinkle in the fabric when something out of order repeats itself.”
Despite the economy of the Greek play upon which it is based — Euripides’ The Bacchae— Chapman’s novel not exactly a lean one. There are numberless sections to which an editor’s pen might productively have been taken: sections overloaded with minute descriptions of activity and atmosphere. The contingencies of illness are tirelessly accounted for, as are the sights and smells of the hospital. Because Chapman’s attention feels indiscriminate, a reader’s focus flags. A novel like this relies for its power on the crucial detail buried among peripheral details, but Suvanto drowns in the latter kind. There is a great deal of talk about objects and medicines, and also about the weather, which is just as boring in Finland as it is elsewhere.
One wants to draw Chapman’s attention to the old writing workshop maxim of “Show don’t tell.” At one point, for example, it is mentioned that Sunny lingers upon the memory of a bumbling maid’s misdeed. The lingering alone would have been sufficient, but Chapman goes on to add that the behavior “is evidence that Sunny, though she takes pains to appear impartial, can hold a grudge.” There’s no need to tell a reader what she already knows. Similarly irksome is Chapman’s habit of quashing opportunities for suspense at their outset, as when Sunny accidentally leaves a confidential case file unlocked and vulnerable to snooping. The file is indeed snooped, but the information revealed is, again, information that the reader already knows. What might have galvanized the plot is hastily resolved with a disappointing thud. At another point a patient goes missing, prompting Sunny to search the grounds at night. But the patient is soon located uneventfully, sleeping in a common room beneath a fur coat. Again, that thud. A reader wants tension or beauty in a novel like this; ideally both in a balance. Suvanto feels not so much like a failure as it does a miscalculation.
On a happier note, there are things to savor about Chapman’s prose. She describes Finland beautifully as a land of lakes and inlets, berries and mosquitoes, and a place where “self-control and silence are the bywords of comfort.” The Finnish words sprinkled among the text (laakrits for licorice and sukulaa for chocolate) are interesting, in autodidactic moods, to encounter. But overall the book is plodding where it might have been meditative, failing to deliver on an unusually intriguing premise. A visitor articulates the matter perfectly upon visiting Suvanto: “This is a life without surprises,” he thinks. “This is torpor.” One might say the same about Chapman’s novel.