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Asylum by Patrick McGrath
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Oct 26, 2010

really liked it
Read in October, 2010

This is my first time reading a Patrick McGrath story. It will not be my last. I don't know how I haven't come across his work before, and I feel I have to catch up on all that I've missed out on.

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.
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