Monday, January 3, 2011

Asylum (1998), Patrick McGrath

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: Keeping in line with my newly discovered obsession with Gothic Literature I recently read Asylum by Patrick McGrath. My husband got it for me for Christmas (upon request) and I tore through the 272 page book like it was my job.

Asylum takes place on the grounds of a crumbling victorian mental hospital for the criminally insane in the English countryside during the late 50s. A new psychiartrist begins work at the mental hospital while his wife (Stella) and child live in a large house on the hospital grounds. Stella begins a passionate yet totally retarded love affair with one of the patients (Edgar) who is on work duty in her garden. Edgar is a nutball who murdered and mutiliated his wife. However, Edgar is hot and an artist so Stella is able to romanticize the murder. Edgar as the whole "tortured artist" schtick going on in spades. Stella becomes sexually obsessed with him (slut) and acts accordingly. Asylum basically details the affair and its aftermath. The story is narrated by an elderly psychiatrist who is clearly an unreliable narrator with his own motivations (any astute reader will pick up on this early on).

I loved the imagery in Asylum. The big, empty victorian spaces, english gardens, barren Welsh countryside and crumbling hospital are all described in interesting and gorgeous detail. I could see the sets in my mind's eye perfectly while reading. The best part is McGrath doesn't drown the reader in long, annoying descriptions of the settings. His descriptions are short and tight yet incredibly effective. This is a are skill. BRAVO Mr. McGrath!

The story is addictive - and how could it not be? The first page of the book tells the reader that the story is a tragedy and a tale of sexual obsession. HELLO?! Then the book takes off running. There is no long exposition or character backstory. The stage is set and Stella and Edgar are banging almost immediately. This isn't really a character study book - you learn some things about the characters through the book but there is no deep analysis as to why the characters are such selfish, crazy, horny jackholes. I hated pretty much everyone in the book but the story was so compelling I couldn't put it down. The plot actually went into a direction I was not expecting which is cool and there is a morbid twist (arguable) at the end.

Although I hate graphic depictions of sex in books I didn't have a problem with the sex in Asylum even though the book is filled with it. The narrator is a doctor and describes the sexual encounters in a clinical way which keeps them from coming off lurid and trashy. I dug it.

I guess some readers would disagree with me, but this book did not strike me as a character study or a commentary/analysis on any deep social, psychologoical or emotional issue. It is just a really morbid yet fascinating story. Crazy people in atmospheric settings begetting tragedy - the perfect gothic tale.

In 2005 Asylum was made into a movie starring Ian McKellen, Natasha Richardson and Marton Csokas. I heard the movie is depressing as all hell but I netflixed it anyway. Here is the weirdly disjointed trailer - it will give you all an idea of the story.

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