Sunny Taylor is an American nurse who seeks employment in a private hospital in Finland, escaping bitter memories and looking to soothe them in the cold and remote location. Thus she begins her work at Suvanto, a spa-like hospital focused on caring for wealthy women who are there for various reasons. Some need genuine medical attention, others simply need to be attended to, and a few lack any other place that feels like home. All of them easily leaving behind husbands and family for the refuge of Suvanto.
Besides Sunny, an independent and skillful nurse, we meet Julia, a hostile and baiting old woman, and Pearl, a childish socialite absorbed in her own amusement. All of them are at Suvanto to escape, but what they avoid is unique to each. What unites them is the need to have nothing matter, no complications to deal with. Suvanto provides them with an excuse to be treated for medical conditions when really they are there for leisure. The numbing routine of crafts and walks and gazing at the frozen sea affects them, in a way the reader does not foresee.
Chapman builds the characters slowly and delicately. Sunny, soon after her eager arrival, is at odds with herself, as she desperately wants to matter: “Here, without anything truly at risk, she feels like she’s merely pretending, in everything. The work is nearly meaningless, and life is nothing but a search for meaning, yes? Isn’t that right? […] Doesn’t that mean for as long as she remains here, completing such tasks, she is wasting her energy? Wasting her life?” Rather than finding contentment in a job well-done, she begins to unravel. She begins to question the true motivation of the women who come to Suvanto.
Julia, a former dancer who arrives to manipulate and harass the staff, elicits no sympathy from Sunny as she creates contention and ill-will in the hospital. And then Pearl arrives, a repeat visitor; a wealthy woman who buys jewels as others might buy candy, eager to fall into her routine. Of her, we read: “She likes to move from place to place, most especially when the place exists without her, and can be returned to with no explanations, no responsibilities. With frequent departures she conceals the fact that she cannot form friendships.” Her lack of connection to a fixed location becomes a pivotal point in understanding her character and the meaning of Suvanto.
The pace of the story is slow and spends its time focusing on the details of Finland, the relationships between the women and their battles for attention, and the change in composure that Sunny experiences in her new locale. The pace can be deceptive, as Chapman is knitting together the details that will become significant and apparent once the whole is created. Her writing is light and airy, while the content is not. She uses phrases that stop you in your tracks, as when Sunny experiences ‘a reverse déjà vu’. She employs the changing light and seasons in Finland, even the changing time of day to illustrate insidious allusions.
At times, Sunny is sleepless and haggard to the point of seeing imaginary faces, and she reminds me of the main character in Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. She faces confusion and a delirium that rushes her forward, headlong into the events as they unfold. As she explores the cold outskirts of the hospital, we read:
“The tight face is a shield, it is the way her working self conceals this other, silent self, the one who roams alone out on the paths. It is a protection, but once she is out in the cold she feels it as pain across her forehead and jaw. She is ignoring the rustling memory of her own voice…It is precarious and loud, this humming act of ignoring the obsessive repetitions of the day.”
Releases April 2010 by Graywolf Press.
Special thanks to Erin Kottke of Graywolf Press for the Advanced Readers Copy.