The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips is coming to the UK after being published to critical acclaim in the US. Promising a chilling, poignant novel of rare restraint and imagination, I was intrigued to find out more when Pushkin Press sent me a review copy.
We first meet Josephine Newbury when she and her husband Joseph, a young married couple with quirkily matching names, move to a new city in search of better lives having fallen on hard times. Jobless and homeless, they find themselves moving from one horrible sub-let to another. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they’re also struggling to have a baby.
Josephine is offered a job as a data entry clerk for a nameless corporation and a faceless employer, who she calls Person with Bad Breath. At her new job she sits in a windowless office entering names and numbers into “The Database” but she doesn’t know what for and she isn’t allowed to discuss her work with anyone, not even Joseph.
Each day, as she’s swamped by the growing stack of files on her desk, she starts to feel increasingly anxious and curious about her surroundings and the work she’s doing. Her unease turns to dread when the only positive thing in her life, her supportive husband Joseph, grows distant and doesn’t come home one night, only to return hours later without explanation.
The more Josephine’s soul-destroying job grinds her down, the more her appearance deteriorates; her eyes become more and more bloodshot and her skin sallow. Anyone who’s ever worked in an office can identify with the monotonous drudgery of Josephine’s job. Helen Phillips cleverly and rather creepily illustrates the tenuous existence people can find themselves living, sometimes without realising it. An odd and deliberately confusing read, the frequency of puzzling wordplay escalates as Josephine mentally unravels and makes you feel as though you’re losing your mind alongside her.
The Beautiful Bureaucrat very much reminded me of Angela Carter’s gothic fairy tales due to its sinister, unnerving atmosphere and striking imagery. Darkly ambiguous, it’s hard not to find yourself sucked into Helen Phillips’ dystopian world and, less than 200 pages long, I challenge you not to devour it in one sitting. Half-way through I did wonder how it could all be tied together but the building pace and sense of foreboding throughout culminates in a surprising climax.
If like me, you’re usually a bit put off by slightly surreal sounding books, then ignore any reservations you might have. The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a quick, easy read but leaves a lasting impact and an uncomfortable feeling that stays with you for a long time…
Thank you to Pushkin Press for sending me a review copy in exchange for an honest review. The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips will be published as a paperback in the UK on 13th April 2017.