The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

beautiful bureaucrat helen phillipsThe Beautiful Bureaucrat made me laugh on the first page with its description of Josephine’s unfortunate interviewer (I won’t spoil it for you). Josephine wouldn’t, ordinarily, want to work in this rather unprepossessing office, entering a single figure per record time after time in a database, but she and her husband have moved to the city because of an economic crisis and have been forced to lower their sights.

It was easy to identify with Josephine and her husband Joseph – it brings back memories of crappy temp jobs when you perform apparently meaningless tasks over and over with no context or sense of purpose, before returning home to a grotty tenancy, hoping that this is not forever but just the route to a better life. The difficulties for Josephine are lightened by her strong relationship with Joseph, his humour and the small pleasures they find in the everyday.

Despite this, the job does undermine Josephine’s confidence and her identity. There are some nice vignettes highlighting the small humiliations and odd rituals of office life, the stock characters who apparently find this bizarre world normal and comprehensible. Then Joseph starts to behave oddly too, and she begins to question the purpose of her work.

After a promising start, my interest wavered. Although this is a short book it felt too long. The relationship between Joseph and Josephine, which at first was kooky and endearing became too much, like a couple who use their pet names in public. They have little shared games such as wordplay which, endlessly repeated, grate. The mystery around Josephine’s job takes a fairly predictable trajectory and I felt at the end that I hadn’t really learnt anything.

I’m also a bit weary of the trope that administrators are soulless and sinister. Without administration, nothing gets done. What about a book about the quiet heroism of the office manager, coordinating resources and people and systems in a game of three-dimensional chess, leaving the neurosurgeon or maverick entrepreneur or touring orchestra free to shine?

I liked the quirky prose and odd perspective of The Beautiful Bureaucrat so would probably read something else by the author but this feels like it needs more substance and fewer words.

I received a copy of The Beautiful Bureaucrat from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Beautiful Bureaucrat on Goodreads

Looking for another Kafka-related disappointing read? Here’s my review of Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss



  1. I love the idea of ‘the quiet heroism of the office manager’. You’re absolutely right that there’s very little fiction set against an office backdrop which is where many spent the bulk of their working lives. I can only think of Joshua Ferris’ Then They Came to the End off the top of my head.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You should give it a go. The same goes for TV. Apart from The Office, which I found so excruciating I couldn’t watch, and Mad Men, I can’t think of any series set in an office. It would make a change from crime.

        Liked by 1 person

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