Books: Asylum by Patrick McGrath

1997’s Asylum by Patrick McGrath was a novel that was recommended to me by a viewer of my book review videos on YouTube, and though I had heard the author’s name before, this was the first novel of his that I read. McGrath is a British writer, and Asylum is essentially a bleak, gothic thriller set in the UK in about 1959. After I read the book, I discovered that a film adaptation of it starring Natasha Richardson and Sir Ian McKellen was made in 2005, and though it stuck fairly close to the events of the novel (except for the ending), it was completely savaged by critics. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know how deserved the roasting was.

This is less a straight horror novel than it is a more psychological melodrama with gothic elements; some really crazy shit happens in it, and though it’s somewhat downbeat and depressing, I found it a very compelling story overall.

Our main characters are a married couple named Max and Stella Raphael. They are very urbane Londoners, but at the beginning of the story, Max takes on a prestigious administration job at a mental hospital that’s a bit out in the middle of nowhere. The big city is still within a reasonable distance, but Stella is not super enthused about having to live out here in this small, rural community. The couple also have a son named Charlie, who is about nine or ten years old. The entire story, I will note, is actually told from the point of view of another psychiatrist, Peter Cleave, who is friends with the Raphaels and works at the same hospital.

Max settles right into his new job, but Stella is left at something of a loose end. The house that was provided to the family came with a housekeeper and other staff, so Stella basically just hangs out with not much to do, sometimes insisting on doing the cooking and cleaning herself in order to alleviate her boredom.

There’s a particular patient at the mental hospital named Edgar Stark, who is an artist and possibly suffers from schizophrenia; Peter Cleave is actually his doctor. Stark is quite violent, and has been institutionalized because he murdered his wife Ruth in a particularly horrific way. He’s also quite a good handyman, and Max allows him to work at restoring the old greenhouse at the Raphael residence, which is on the hospital grounds.

So right away you might be able to see where this is going: you have one bored housewife who resents her husband for dragging her away from city life, and you have one scary but fascinating “bad boy” in close proximity. Soon enough, these two begin a torrid affair, which unsurprisingly does not end well.

As I mentioned, the story is narrated by Stark’s doctor, Peter Cleave, who also becomes something of a confidante for Stella as the story goes on. Because Cleave is a psychiatrist, he’s able to get inside her head, and tries to warn her about the consequences of her rash actions. And believe me, there ARE consequences; this is a gothic novel, after all, which trades in overwrought tragedy, and the repercussions of Stella and Edgar’s affair are REALLY something else. Seriously, people die or have their entire lives ruined because this one woman just wanted to sample some new, dangerous dick.

One thing I found fascinating about this novel is how layered the characterization is. I will admit that none of the characters, with the possible exception of the kid, is all that likeable, but that’s part of what makes the story so engaging. Stella in particular is a deeply shitty person, with a disturbingly cavalier attitude about the way her actions affect others, but it could be argued that she’s something of a victim herself (though it doesn’t excuse the horrible shit she does). She does have agency, but her existence also appears constrained by the men around her, and even though she seems to perceive her affair with Edgar as breaking free from her bonds, he is also manipulating her for his own ends, just like all the other men in her life are.

In some ways, it also seems as though Stella might be suffering from depression, which is causing her to slowly lose any sense of empathy toward herself or others. It’s something she doesn’t seem to be able to control, though even knowing this, she’s still a difficult person to root for.

Seeing everything through the eyes of Peter Cleave almost puts the reader at one remove from the story, but at the same time introduces the prospect of him being an unreliable narrator, in the sense that he might be interpreting Stella’s actions and feelings through his own biased lens. There’s also the possibility that Stella herself might be manipulating him into thinking of her in a particular way. In fact, because almost all the characters are psychiatrists or have extended interactions with psychiatrists, it’s plausible that everyone is sort of manipulating everyone else.

In some ways, the way this book is structured reminded me a bit of Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door, which was likewise stuffed with fascinating characters who you desperately wanted to punch in the mouth, and was told through the perspective of someone who wasn’t directly involved in the story. That book also had a very over-the-top gothic style with borderline-unbelievable events, like this one does, but in the end, both books work because the prose is so matter-of-fact that the reader goes along with whatever batshit insane occurrences ensue. Asylum also gave me vibes similar to the 1991 novel Damage by Josephine Hart (which was adapted to an awesome film starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche in 1992), in the sense that a very ill-considered affair ends in ruined lives and death.

This was an enthralling novel, and I found myself thinking about it a lot days and even weeks after I read it. It’s not a good time, that’s for sure, because so much horrible shit happens in it, so definitely don’t read it if you’re looking for a fun, breezy story, because this is decidedly NOT that. It made me feel sort of shitty and hopeless afterwards, so I can’t say I “enjoyed” it in that sense, but I also found it a really messed-up and almost profound examination of people’s psychological states, and an engrossing dive into the thought processes of people who do immensely ill-advised things despite knowing the likely outcome. If you’re into really tragic British gothic tales of adultery and murder, then definitely check this one out.

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