Saturday, July 15, 2017
ASYLUM by Patrick McGrath
Asylum's timeframe seems to be in the 50s or early 60s, and takes the form of an extended narrative by psychiatrist Peter Cleave, who is reflecting on his patient, Stella Raphael. Stella is the wife of Max Raphael, a doctor at the high security asylum where Cleave works, and they have a son, Charlie. Stella appears to be the happy housewife on the surface, but it soon becomes clear that her marriage is not the happiest, and is devoid of excitement and passion. She becomes infatuated with Edgar Stark, an inmate, a sculptor who murdered his wife and mutilated her body, in the delusional belief that she was unfaithful to him. He even believes he has a son who does not exist. Edgar, who is part of a work detail and is restoring a Victorian conservatory that's part of the Raphael home (which is on asylum grounds). Stella and Edgar begin a passionate sexual affair...but where is it going? How deep do their feelings run? To what degree are they using each other? And how much does Peter Cleave know, as he seems to be keeping an eye on them?
It's an examination of passion and obsession, madness and self-destruction. As is obvious from page one, Stella inevitably ends up in the asylum herself as a patient, after a horrifying crime....and it's ambiguous to what degree it was deliberate and to what degree it was a product of her profound depression and instability at the time. Nobody's really heroic; Stella is self-absorbed, a user, and a borderline alcoholic, Max is a stick-in-the-mud, Edgar is passionate but deranged and dangerous, and Peter is a creep whose lack of professionalism permits things to roll out of control.
McGrath also uses setting and weather to his advantage; there's tons of great descriptions that also lend atmosphere and meaning to the action of the story and the moods of the characters. I love authors whose books have a great sense of place; there's no use having your book take place in Hong Kong or Botswana when for all the description you give and all the use you make of the location, it may as well be in Indiana.
There is some predictability to the story, but that is more or less built in to the narrative. It's hardly a feminist work, either, as Stella only defines herself through relationships. (Unless that's part of the point? That such attitudes are ultimately destructive? Something to ponder....)
It was made into a film in 2005 with Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellan, and Martin Csokas, and I'll have to track it down sometime. The book itself is currently out of print but likely easy to find used, or at the library. (I got an ebook from the library; great system for that.)