Following on from my Tove Jansson post in which I mentioned the odd coincidence when I saw a review of one book and happened to see another related volume by the same author shortly after, I had a similar experience reading Asylum by Patrick McGrath. I happened to be browsing a list of Whitbread Prize contenders (now the Costa prize), and decided to read a few volumes that I hadn't got round to reading yet - one of them being Asylum, nominated both for the Whitbread and the Guardian Fiction prizes in 1996.

So....I start to read Asylum and then have the oddest sense of deja vu. Only a few days before I'd been watching a documentary about Broadmoor, the mental institution in which some of the UK's most dangerous criminals are housed. Interviewed in the documentary was Patrick McGrath, son of the former Superintendent of Broadmoor, and, yes, you've guessed it - the author of Asylum.

Asylum's a very odd book. It's a disconcerting, unsettling, and ultimately unsatisfying read, that made me feel quite uneasy long after finishing it. Having said which, it was well written, and completely unputdownable. It's a great Twentieth-century Gothic thriller. Stella Raphael is the wife of a psychiatrist at a hospital not unlike Broadmoor. Trapped in an emotionally sterile marriage, she falls for the wife-killer, the psychotic Edgar Stark. When Stark escapes from the hospital, possibly with the contrivance of Stella, she feels driven to follow him; but as Stark's own mental demons come back to haunt him, Stella is driven deep into the darkest reaches of depression with profound implications for her family.

I find reading about madness peculiarly unsettling. For me, there's always been a bit of a horror of going nuts, bananas, bats in the belfry, whatever you choose to call it. It may be partly because I've suffered from depression, so I'm aware of how close the borderline can be between what we call sane, and what's not. Where McGrath is so unsettling is, I think, in his examination of different "types" of madness. I guess what all of us fear - from our earliest viewing of horror films - is the triumph of madness over humanity. The mad axe murderer, the "Johnny" of The shining. Anyone who's been seriously depressed knows how very dangerous the more silent madness of depression can be. You're probably not going to be leaping around with an axe threatening your nearest and dearest, what you may want to do to yourself though is probably not that far removed from the mad axe-woman....

So I found this thought provoking, I also found his writing on violence towards women, and how women can become bound into the violence thought provoking too. However ultimately as a novel, I'm not sure how successful it was. Stella is at times brilliantly well written, but sometimes she becomes a caricature of herself. Her attitude towards sex is strangely ambivalent, provoking the uneasy sensation that perhaps Stark was truthful in his judgement of her - something that I definitely didn't want to believe in any way. McGrath's depiction of sexual love as a type of madness, or something that definitely feeds into potential madness, was also odd. It seemed to me a very odd way of depicting women as though any woman who likes sex per se must have some measure of lunacy - a very odd Victorian view, and perhaps more than anything what lifts this novel to Gothic heights. While many of the psychiatrists were worthy of a place in a Hammer horror film, with many of them, not least the central character, Peter Cleave, who sees himself as the rock that Stella will want to cleave to, appearing to take some delight in treating their patients almost as specimens in bottles.

I read Struwwelpeter as a child. I remember shutting the book, feeling nauseous, and knowing that I never wanted to read it again. Oddly, I felt the same about Asylum. In this case I think it's a tribute to McGrath's writing which is never less than powerful. It doesn't always quite work, but there's much to praise in this unsettling read.



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