You know those books you add to your Goodreads ‘want to read’ list, click clicking away months ago and then forget where on earth you got your inspiration from? Asylum by Patrick McGrath, published in 1996, was one such book and one that I was determined to like, the third contestant of a so-far appalling book club record by yours truly (the group have hated my previous choices, as have I). Stumbling upon a review in last season’s gorgeous Slightly Foxed – sure-fired assurance of a good read – I knew things were finally looking up.
This promisingly disturbing novel seemed just the ticket for Halloween. Set in a Broadmoor-style psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of London, we are told a tragic tale of love and obsession between Stella Raphael; the deputy superintendent’s elegant wife and Edgar Stark; a deeply disturbed murderer. As a long-standing inmate on his best behaviour, Edgar is allowed to use his artistic skills restoring the Stella’s garden and conservatory to its former glory, putting her right in his line of sight.
Stuck in a staid, passionless marriage, Stella is ripe for adventure. Embarking on a dangerous, lusting affair that quickly escalates out of control, she is a Thérèse Raquin for the modern era; a bored 50s housewife with a screw loose. Abandoning her lush, middle class existence and young family for one of uncertainty and squalor, the story hurtles in impossible directions, keeping us on tenterhooks until the very end. Narrated by Edgar’s personal doctor and Stella’s good friend Peter Cleave, these are unreliable narrators stacked within unreliable narrators, like Russian dolls, making for a deliciously mysterious narrative.
Riveted from the start, I had a very clear idea in my mind of where this car crash of human relationships would go, only to be surprised at every turn. Rather than delving into Edgar Stark’s psyche and gruesome past this became, satisfyingly, Stella’s story. A refreshing decision by McGrath that led in a brilliant, unexpected direction.
There are some seriously bleak, introspective periods in this book that, although I found so very effective and mood-enhancing at the time, I could have found exhausting had I been reading at a trickier period in my life. Characters are cleverly, elusively drawn; from the psychiatrists who seem to almost read their subjects minds ‘Derren Brown’ style, to Stella herself; a frustrating, complicated woman who is often, in true 1950s style, plonked in a pigeonhole with the other ‘hysterical women’:
Being out there, beyond the law, she told me, was always the most intense experience , this was why it intoxicated her. Romantic women, I reflected: they never think of the damage they do in their blind pursuit of intense experience. Their infatuation with freedom.
The group overwhelmingly enjoyed this thought-provoking novel, all the more for the wide range of topics to talk about. Most importantly of all; the importance of understanding mental health problems and how they can affect the most seemingly ordinary of people. This striking tale of all-consuming addiction is an addiction in and of itself.