I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by Henry Holt and Company on August 11th 2015
Genres: Fiction, General, Literary, Thrillers
A young wife's new job pits her against the unfeeling machinations of the universe in this dazzling first novel Ursula K. Le Guin hails as "funny, sad, scary, beautiful. I love it."In a windowless building in a remote part of town, the newly employed Josephine inputs an endless string of numbers into something known only as The Database. After a long period of joblessness, she's not inclined to question her fortune, but as the days inch by and the files stack up, Josephine feels increasingly anxious in her surroundings-the office's scarred pinkish walls take on a living quality, the drone of keyboards echoes eerily down the long halls. When one evening her husband Joseph disappears and then returns, offering no explanation as to his whereabouts, her creeping unease shifts decidedly to dread.As other strange events build to a crescendo, the haunting truth about Josephine's work begins to take shape in her mind, even as something powerful is gathering its own form within her. She realizes that in order to save those she holds most dear, she must penetrate an institution whose tentacles seem to extend to every corner of the city and beyond. Both chilling and poignant, The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a novel of rare restraint and imagination. With it, Helen Phillips enters the company of Murakami, Bender, and Atwood as she twists the world we know and shows it back to us full of meaning and wonder-luminous and new.
This was a quick, fun little read. I think I find a certain appeal to quick reads like this for a couple of reasons: (1) the many sci-fi/fantasy book series of which I am a fan; and (2) exposure to clinical writing. So, let me first explain…
I love a good series. And, from beginning to end, it is usually quite the experience. With unlimited pages, the author has the ability (and often the predilection) to create a story that is bursting with detail. It’s a lot to soak in and hold on to, especially when there are large gaps between books! This book was the antithesis of such a series, but didn’t fail to deliver! It has a great, suspenseful story that gave me enough detail to full capture the world in which Josephine lived and worked. In that sense I was reminded of how to write clinically, and that keeping things concise and relevant were of paramount importance. The author could have easily padded the pages with descriptive flourishes, but she didn’t, and I don’t miss it here. It’s like a literary smoothie, it goes down quick without all that superfluous chewing and yet I get all the happy, little nutrients!
Yet one of my favorite things about this book was the way in which the author wrote what was going on in Josephine’s head. I love the inner dialog Josephine had with herself, often playing with the words as anagrams and rhymes. And one of the best moments was her description of fear:
“They frightened her, the people of the world. She was scared to look up, scared to observe the smiles and frowns on their faces. They were the spies of the Person with Bad Breath. The spoons were, too, and the saltshaker, the napkin dispenser, the strand of hair; all of them keeping tabs on her, the thief. Again, she shut her eyes.”
She really nailed the almost irrationality of thought one might experience when in the grips of terror; moments where even those who are usually level-headed fail to find fault in the idea of clandestine cutlery.
Another thing that really grabbed me was how the author beautifully captured the inescapable sense of drudgery of menial jobs and obligation to working somewhere you don’t want to be or that doesn’t value you with an appropriate wage. It brought me back to the first years of my marriage. Although we hadn’t fled the “hinterland” for urban splendor, my husband and I were in a similar situation: living in a shoddy apartment, working for peanuts, having monthly debates on which bills we could pay late. It was tough and trying at times, and I feel that was also reflected in the dynamics of Joseph and Josephine’s relationship throughout the course of the book.
I thoroughly enjoyed this short, single-sitting read. It was suspenseful with a lot of magical realism, and kept me engaged until the very end. If that sounds like a good time to you, I think you’ll like it as well!