Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

Book Review

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips - Reading, Writing, Booking Blog

"She carried the Database around inside of her; it floated in her brain like a net for catching and killing any glistening idea that came along."

The Beautiful Bureaucrat is released in the UK today (April 13th 2017). It is written by Helen Phillips and published by Pushkin Press.

This is a strange book, it's not really sure what it wants to be; it's part thriller, part magical realism, part exploration of the mundanity of modern life and part completely surreal hallucination. The Beautiful Bureaucrat attempts too much and doesn't quite hit the right note, but I did enjoy reading it and, having been a data drone in my work life, connect with Josephine a lot.

If the job market hadn't been so bleak during that long, humid summer, Josephine might have been discouraged from taking the administrative position in a windowless building in a remote part of town.
As the days inch by and the files stack up, Josephine feels increasingly anxious in her surroundings - the drone of keyboards echoes eerily down the long halls, her boss has terrible breath, and there are cockroaches in the bath of her sub-let. When one evening her husband Joseph disappears and then returns, offering no explanation as to his whereabouts, her creeping unease shifts decidedly to dread.
Both chilling and poignant, this novel asks the biggest questions about marriage and fidelity, birth and death. Helen Phillips twists the world we know and shows it back to us full of meaning and wonder - luminous and new.

Anyone who's worked data entry will empathise with Josephine. Inputting figures hour after hour can turn your brain to soup and stifle time.
Phillips is great at creating that sort of muffled frustration.

"The distance between four o'clock and five o'clock, between 148 files and 166 files, often felt interminable."

The descriptions in this book are fittingly depressing too; the windowless office, the other working drones, the scarred walls of Josephine's office, they're all wonderfully captured and create a low level of threat and mystery that runs through the whole story. It made me want to read on and find out what, if anything, was behind Josephine's work. But I felt that the narrative kept interrupting itself and cutting the momentum. I found her relationship with Joseph quite dragging. There's lots of introspection but you still never really get a feel for Joseph or their relationship.

It's a shame because some of the characters I found fascinating. Trishiffany (what a name!) is a mix of opposites and a wonderfully unique and confusing character, at times threatening and at others comforting.

There are some excellent elements and writing in The Beautiful Bureaucrat, but it is sometimes weighed down by its own density. I felt like it was trying to do too much.

My rating: 3/5

I received a digital copy of The Beautiful Bureaucrat via NetGalley in return for an honest review. My thanks to the author and publisher.

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