A woman whose husband is a doctor working in an asylum has an affair with a patient, a sculptor who killed his wife from jealousy. When he escapes she follows him, but his jealous fits send her back to her husband. The sculptor is caught, the doctor changes jobs, but that is not the end of the story. One day she will rejoin the sculptor, this time as a fellow-patient.
Normally, I finish a book and immediately pronounce to myself whether it was good or bad, and then I'm off to the next selection from my burgeoning bookshelves. It's been awhile, however, since I closed the pages of a story and had to sit and reflect for a few moments afterwards. Without question, this was an excellent book, and I needed more time to think on the very nature behind the story, the characters, and events. Needless to say, I brooded and ruminated on the ending for quite some time.
Asylum, by Patrick McGrath has done all of this. It has all the elements of a story that I like -- a haunting setting in the gloomy and sweeping English countryside, a dark love affair, secrets, and ambiguity.
Stella is the mother of a young boy, Charlie and the wife of Max, an esteemed psychiatrist at a maximum-security institution for the criminally insane just outside of London, England, in the late 1950s. Her day to day life of wife and mother is mundane, and her husband really doesn't have the drive or passion to keep her interested. Only a few patients are granted access to the grounds around the house on the institution, to work on the garden or to redo the old conservatory, with a watchful group of staff nearby. Unbeknownst to all, though, Stella becomes the lover of an incredibly dangerous patient, Edgar. He's quite an artist, but he's also destructively jealous -- his unending stay in the institution was determined because he killed his wife in a brutal and mutilating manner, apparently because she was seeing other men. Stella, however, still finds herself uncontrollably drawn to him and caught up in the passion of this bizarre love.
This is an absolutely fascinating story and it is incredibly written, told through the perspective of another doctor at the institution, the older and wiser Dr. Peter Cleave. I initially thought I wouldn't care for this character, but I ultimately found that not only was it necessary in order to describe a general understanding of the mind -- the breakdown of Stella, the depth of manipulation by Edgar, and the ultimate weaknesses of Stella's husband, but it also explained the neurosis and psychosis of the characters. The insight Dr. Cleave provided was so critical to understand how these fictionalized people became completely devoid of reality only to succumb to the obsession everyone represses -- the ability to become thoroughly self-obsessed, whether or not it destroys innocent lives.
With Peter telling the story, in some scenes almost clinically, it created a much more haunting feel and I felt completely entrenched in the story. Several times it seemed to intensify so sadly and in such a disturbing nature, that I couldn't fathom it to turn more grim than it already was, but the author was able to continue down that path even further. Peter provides a trusting credibility that lends quite a bit to the pleasure that I had in the twists that occurred. I was mortified, angry, heartbroken, and completely engrossed in the story.
Patrick McGrath has created a suspenseful psychological thriller of obsession with oneself. It is haunting and dark, deeply erotic in some scenes, and altogether disturbing. Highly recommended, and I will be on the lookout for more Patrick McGrath books.
The insular, bubble-like world that McGrath has created in Asylum is reflected in the three main settings of the novel. The story opens at a large, Victorian-era asylum for the criminally insane in the English countryside, where Stella, the unfulfilled wife of one of the hospital’s psychiatrists, begins a dangerous love affair with an inmate, Edgar Stark, a psychopathic sculptor who decapitated his wife. From there, the action moves to a slovenly garret room in the industrial section of London, and then to the desolate moors of north Wales. These settings reflect the characters’ situation: isolated from the world, unable to release their emotions in anything but destructive ways, existing in a fragile bubble always in danger of shattering.
This story is about obsession. Soon after starting the affair with Edgar, Stella finds herself growing more obsessed with him and taking more risks. It is unclear whether Edgar is just using her to find a way to escape from the hospital, or whether he is equally obsessed. Even after he does disappear and the affair is discovered, the damage is reparable; everyone around Stella wants to preserve the bubble they live in — until she follows Edgar to London and sets in motion a chain of events with an inevitably tragic outcome.
Stella relates the story of her obsessive love affair to her friend and psychiatrist, Peter, the narrator. Peter and the reader remain unsure whether she is hiding the truth to manipulate him, whether her obsession continues despite everything that happens as a result of the affair. Eventually, the reader discovers that Peter, ostensibly the objective narrator looking in from the outside, harbors an obsession as well, which colors how he sees and describes Stella. We are left with the question of whether Stella was actually responsible for everything that happened, or whether her obsession was a sickness she couldn’t help acting upon.
This is a fast read, suspenseful, erotic and horrifying. Despite the ambiguity of the story, it is also very satisfying gothic horror and psychological suspense.
I liked the way the author tells a story, but it is this particular story I didn’t like. Parts of the story were simply not believable. Too many breaches of professional ethics within the tale kept pulling me back from getting truly involved with the characters. This turned into a story that I wanted to end because I couldn’t see it going anywhere. And wasn’t Brenda (Max’s mom) an annoying character?!
It was pretty creepy. The language was terrific though. Not too poetic and not too stark. Nice flow and description of Stella’s encroaching madness. The dreams. Her screwing of the landlord of their house in Wales. She was out there and didn’t care. Although, even then she was just as careful to conceal what she was doing as she was when she was screwing Edgar at the hospital. For all her madness, she knew what she was doing had to be concealed.
Narrated by one of Max’s colleagues at the asylum, a man who has his own designs and whose affection for Stella may prove the downfall of them all, the story is dark, mesmerising, and just as twisty as the minds of its characters. The final act may prove a let-down for some, but most will be satisfied.
The author has created an amazing story. As with any scary story, as I fully believe this qualifies as, there is truth in the way this woman's mind works even as she begins to lose control. Seeing those similarities in yourself, and reading what could happen, what did happen, with this character brings the situation to life in a real and terrifying way.
This is definitely my favorite book. Why? Because it scared me to no end. It was days before I could stop thinking about this story, and feeling the same awful feelings as when I was reading it. But I can not wait to read it again. I would recommend this book to anyone that loves a good, disturbing story.