Book reviews, Comedy, Literary fiction

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

The Beautiful Bureaucrat has been described as funny, sad and scary. Book and Brew reviewer Marilyn Audsley got the task of checking out this intriguing text.

Let’s see what she thought.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat
Marilyn settling in for her review.

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

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 sublet. When one evening her husband Joseph disappears and then returns, offering no explanation as to his whereabouts, her creeping unease shifts decidedly to dread.

What’s good about it?

The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a creepy and unnerving read while remaining enjoyable and intriguing. You are with Josephine as she finds her world starting to slightly fall apart, and you wonder if it really is or is she just falling apart inside her mind?

The building that Josephine begins to work at is like a character itself, especially during the first part of the book while she is getting to know her new place of work. It reminded me quite a lot of J. G. Ballard’s High Rise, where the building seems to be alive. The block-sized concrete monstrosity containing Josephine’s windowless office makes noises and has walls that seem to move. It has a distinctive smell and everything about it seems to be slightly wrong.

“The four walls were very slowly, almost imperceptibly, moving closer together, pressing in toward one another, toward her. She tried to take a deep breath but there was no air.”

Everything is a little bit strange and it creates a real feeling of tension. It makes Josephine feel ill to be breathing the air in it, and her feelings are so well described I could picture myself in that hell-hole of a working environment. Her colleagues are also not quite right…

Josephine and her husband, Joseph, have an unusually quiet relationship. At first it seems clear that it’s because they are so in love and in tune with each other. This same quietness quickly becomes a way of showing the tension between them as their relationships changes.

Wordplay is a regular feature in Josephine’s thoughts. She meets words and phrases and plays around with them in her head. This gets more pronounced as we move through the novel, and this reflects how Josephine is becoming, though reluctantly, a bureaucrat. She begins to use Joseph’s social security number as a pet name for him, which is just weird!

Finally, the opening sentence to each chapter is printed in a different font to the rest of the book and I loved that. It looks like typewriter print and echoes the task of many bureaucrats in the office block. It’s a nice subtle touch that really works.

What’s not so good about it?

I enjoyed The Beautiful Bureaucrat but I didn’t love it. I found Josephine’s mental wordplay to stem the flow of the narrative a bit too much.

I found the first third really tense and creepy, but that feeling dropped away. I enjoyed the ending but wished the feelings I’d had about the first part of the book had carried all the way through it. Though, perhaps that would have been too much.

Josephine has a really dark interaction with Joseph around half way through the book. I’m not going to give any spoilers here, but this part stood out because the events are awful, yet the characters involved seemed to be very unemotional about it. Perhaps I prefer my books with more flowery descriptions, this is quite sparing. I read The Beautiful Bureaucrat around the same time as I was listening to the audiobook of George Saunder’s Lincoln In The Bardo and the contrast between the narrative styles couldn’t have been greater.

Overall, The Beautiful Bureaucrat is an enjoyable, creepy look at relationships, work and life.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat is out now from Pushkin Press. Thanks to them for our review copy.

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