In Patrick McGrath’s Asylum, Stella Raphael and her husband Max live on the premises of a maximum-security mental hospital, where Max is the deputy administrator. Not long after they arrive, Stella becomes involved with Edgar Stark, a patient who has been sent to the asylum for decapitating his wife and mutilating her head. Stark’s case is handled by Peter Cleave, who also tells their story. Here’s how he begins:

 The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic. She translated her experience with Edgar Stark into the stuff of melodrama, she made of it a tale of outcast lovers braving the world’s contempt for the sake of a great passion.

We know right away that things will end badly, as these things always do. And things do get bad, very quickly. And then they get worse. And Cleave chronicles it all, basing his tale on his own observations and what Stella herself told him.

Cleave sees Stella as passionately devoted to Stark and seems to believe that this devotion underlies all her actions, but as the story goes on, Cleave’s role as narrator become muddier and muddier until the truth of the situation becomes entirely unclear. We know that Cleave got a lot of information from Stella, but why should we assume Stella was honest? And eventually, we are given reason to doubt Cleave’s own words. So we’re left with an unreliable narrator telling a story that was told to him by another unreliable narrator. Very Wuthering Heights. And in a good way.

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7 Responses to Asylum

  1. Sandra says:

    Nice review. I really liked this story and reviewed it briefly here:

    His book Trauma is very good too.

  2. You need to stop writing such great book reviews! My TBR pile is growing faster than I can read!

  3. I just popped over from my blog where you left a comment earlier today. I’m glad to be here and look forward to reading your reviews! I read Asylum last fall when I was looking for something a bit creepy for the Halloween season. Didn’t get the kind of creepy I was looking for here, but there certainly were some creepy elements (like the narrator’s potential ulterior motives in telling the story). I haven’t read anything else by McGrath yet, but this did encourage me to read his others.

  4. Jenny says:

    Teresa, I have to laugh. I am actively looking for this book on Bookmooch. It doesn’t seem at all implausible that one day we will be reading the same thing at the same time — our own small book group! Great review (again), thanks.

  5. Chris says:

    I’ve had this on my TBR shelf forEVER! Have you seen the movie adaptation as well? (I’ve neither read nor viewed Asylum).

  6. Teresa says:

    Sandra: Trauma has been on my “get at the library” list for a while. I’m glad to hear it’s worthwhile!

    Meg89: Hey, if I’m going to crushed by the weight of an overwhelming TBR pile, I have to be sure I’m not there alone :-)

    Trevor: Thanks for stopping by! Yeah, I found that this book only got creepy as I really thought about it—especially about Cleave. The chilling stuff isn’t on the surface.

    Jenny: That is hilarious! If my copy weren’t from the library, I’d send it to you.

    Chris: No, I haven’t seen the movie—I didn’t even know it existed until I googled the book a few days ago. I don’t know how well it would translate into film, and the reviews weren’t very good, so I don’t think I’ll be seeking it out.

  7. Matt says:

    Like Home and Gilead, Asylum is also on my TBR pile. That I’ve been reading books so depressing I haven’t worked my way through them. Thanks for a great, thoughtful review. I’ll get to the book soon.

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