Book Review

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

the beautiful bureaucrat

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from The Beautiful Bureaucrat when I was offered a copy by the publisher, One.  The strangeness of it appealed to me, and it certainly delivered on this promise.

Part modern fairy-tale, part existentialist thriller, this is a breath-taking joyride of a novel for the summer.

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.

Josephine and her husband, Joseph, have recently returned to the city, seeking a better life for themselves.  With few job options available, Josephine reluctantly takes on an administrative position, entering data into a Database from an almost never-ending stack of papers.  Understanding what the Database is for and what the data she is entering actually means she hasn’t been told, and whilst curious, she is grateful to have any job at all, and doesn’t question the details at all.  Until one day she stumbles across the meaning of her role entirely be accident.  I won’t spoil the revelation – it was quite unexpected, and I do think it’s best discovered whilst reading the novel.  From this point on, the novel has a sense of inevitability about it – I fully expected part of what followed, and raced through this short volume to confirm my expectations, and to see if what seemed inevitable could be avoided.

Josephine is the only character that the reader really gets to know throughout the novel, and even then, the details are light.  Both she and Joseph come across as everyday kind of people – a couple who are struggling to pay their rent and to save money to make a better life for themselves, who want a child but have so far been unsuccessful in that.  It’s hard not to feel sympathy for them as they are forced from one decrepit rental to another, and it’s easy to understand their desire to improve their situation.  Josephine’s work is dull, and I loved the light relief offered by the vignettes of her time with Joseph, and enjoyed their wordplay which seems a hallmark of their relationship.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a weird and wonderful little novel, which, at some 180 odd pages, can be read in a single sitting.  It reminded me a little of China Mieville in style, with a little Kafka thrown in for good measure.  The novel doesn’t give a huge amount of detail – it feels bleak and dystopian in nature, with its struggling job market, but the details around this aren’t fully revealed.  The city they are in isn’t named, nor is it clear where they came from (“the hinterland”) before arriving there.  Much is implied in Phillips’s writing, however, and if it’s sparsity may not appeal to everyone, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat was first published in 2015, and has been republished by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press, in 2018.  Many thanks to Mollie Stewart for providing a copy for review.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐


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