Your Presence is
Requested at Suvanto

Maile Chapman
(Graywolf Press)
Suvanto is what we used to call a "nursing home" and now refer to as an ALF --- "assisted living facility." After I go dotty and wet, when they have to cart me off, please let it be to this station in Finland. Clean rooms with poignant vistas of the snow, the pine trees, the bay. Quiet paths through the woods. Rocks and steam down below: a sauna for all.

Then there's piirakka for breakfast, hot, "shining with butter across the dimpled surface" --- a thick wheat shell filled with rice of potato. Or

    buttered brown bread so dense and dark it's nearly black, nearly sweet, nearly bitter, nearly as if there were bits of unsweetened chocolate baked in, although there aren't.

If this is dotage, let me at it. Still, outside of a caring staff, great food, and wondrous surroundings in this particular ALF, I can't think of anything more unlikely than a murder mystery set in a nursing home in Finland.

Yet somehow, Chapman brings it off, and the ladies on the top floor conspire with sweet Sunny Taylor --- their charge nurse --- to do in Dr. Peter, the medical chief who wants to get rid of the "up-patients," to bring in the more financially rewarding OB/GYN cases, with all their squeaky babies.

Suvanto starts off as a novel about these semi-dotty ladies in a gorgeous hospital; but then it turns into a charged tale of the Weird Sisters who refuse to take anything sitting down ... especially threats to their eminent domain. So, they come together one icy night outside the building, in a fraught Shakespearean pas-de-deux, among the shadows ... "like two empty suns in the sky," complete with comet overhead, "that horned head of cold ice shining in a halo of vapor, hanging without moving." Oh the foolish Dr. Peter:

    While he is rising they are on him, and that their combined weight simply conspires to snap his neck with an audible, regretful sound.

A regretful sound!

§     §     §

Chapman is an agile writer; a good one too: sometimes too good for her own good. Her sketch of mad Julia's years of syphilis, or Pearl's gonorrhea (or is it tuberculosis of the joints?) is graphic enough to make one want to lay aside Suvanto for a time ... but one is always drawn back in. What is it about the Fates and their nurses --- Nurse Death, nee Todd --- that continues to pull the reader in?

All the men come off the losers, purveyors of arrogance, death and disease. The women? They are bewitching (or bewitched) ... unwilling to die, or to let any of their number succumb to the ministrations of any mere man with a license to kill. Suvanto turns out to be good medicine for any and all in the medical profession who think they know more than they ought to.

--- Lolita Lark
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH