26 October 2010

Asylum, by Patrick McGrath

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.

Side Note:  Patrick McGrath grew up near Broadmoor Hospital in London (a high-security psychiatric hospital), where his father was a medical superintendent.  He is a British novelist whose work has been categorized as Gothic fiction, and his fiction is "principally characterized by the first person unreliable narrator, and recurring subject matter in his work includes mental illness, repressed homosexuality, and adulterous relationships."(Source: Wikipedia)

Happy Reading,
Coffee and a Book Chick

FTC Disclosure...I requested this book from Paperbackswap after reading The Literate Housewife's blog -- she loved this book and Patrick McGrath is one of her favorite authors.


  1. The books that make you think are the best in my opinion. This sounds like it would be great for a book club!

  2. Hmm I might like this. It sounds like Somerset Maugham's 'Of Human Bondage', which is more about a young man's coming-of-age. He goes through a similar sounding obsession only to come out the other side a (thankfully) changed and matured man. It was also a book that stayed with me for days after I finished it. I love when that happens.

  3. I had the same experience this month of reading a book and wondering why I hadn't crossed paths with the author before.
    I haven't read anything by Patrick McGrath either but this sounds like something I'd enjoy. Checked the library catalogue and they have two of his other books but only an audio of Asylum. I've never listened to an audio but maybe I could give it a try.

  4. I've had this on my TBR list for a while now. Your review has made me even more keen to read it.

  5. Well I am a bit scared of psychological thrillers, I don't choose to read them often. I know, they are sometimes gems - but I am not in the right moods this year.... I know crazy reason.

    But I am going to bookmark this author, someday I am going to read his book.

  6. I have seen Patrick McGrath's name a few times recently, but I've not read any of his books yet. I love books that leave you thinking after you've stopped reading. I've added this one to my wishlist :-)

  7. bermudaonion -- This would be a really interesting selection for a book club! It's a quick read as well!

    Trish -- I've not read "Of Human Bondage" but I might need to pick this one up!

    Cat -- Do let me know if you enjoyed the book! I don't know how the audio book is, but I can assure you that the written form is really good. And actually, when I think further on it, the way it's written may lend itself to a really good audio version --provided it's a good speaker as well! Let me know what you think of it!

    1girl2manybooks -- Yes, do pick it up and let me know what you think!

    Veens -- It is definitely a good psychological thriller, but you do need to be in the mood for it, I'm sure! If you read it, let me know!

    farmlanebooks -- These definitely make you think! I know that I need to pick up his other books after reading this one! I can't wait to read the other ones he has out there -- Trauma, Dr. Haggard's Disease... perfect for Halloween! :)

  8. Oh, this does sound wonderful! I have an unending fascination with psychology, so this book sounds like it would be perfect for me, and I like that you mention that it is dark and sinuous. I am going to be looking for this book as soon as I can, and thank you for the fabulous review!

  9. I love books that poke into the workings of the mind. But cheating with a man who murdered his cheating wife? Danger, danger! This woman was just asking for it!

  10. This sounds like a fun Halloween read! I've never heard of this author I'm going to have to look into him!

  11. I have head of this writer but never read anything by him. It sounds like an interesting book. My library doesn't have it so I was able to order it from BookMooch just a moment ago.

    Thanks for pointing it out!

  12. Zibielle -- Very dark, but I loved it! Let me know what you think!

    Sandy -- The book is fascinating in how you get complete insight into how this woman made the choices she did -- even though I was furious with her the whole time!

    Brenna -- Oh, this is perfect for Halloween -- very dark, very haunting! I can't wait to read his other books!

    leeswammes -- Very welcome, I do hope you like it!! Let me know what you think when you finish it! It's a very quick read, only about 250 pages or so!

  13. That does sound good and the fact that it had you stop at the end, brilliant.

  14. Marce -- I'd love to hear what you think of this one! It's a fabulous story and really draws you in. I'm still kind of thinking about it -- it's hovering in the background!!

  15. I think the cover alone says quite a bit about this book. I have seen this one before but didn't know the specifics. Thanks for the great review and recommendation.

  16. Jenny Girl-- I agree, doesn't the cover just say it all? Gothic and haunting -- absolutely! If you do pick it up, let me know your thoughts!

  17. When I recommend books, there's always a part of me that is nervous that the reader won't love it as much as I did. I'm so glad that 1) I didn't know you read this book on my suggestion - that way I was never nervous about it and 2) that you loved it as much as I did. Your review really makes me want to reread it.

  18. oh wow! .... I read this book many many years ago. I had forgotten about it.. Edgar Stark.. I remember really liking it. Thanks for jogging my memory!

  19. Literate Housewife -- Thanks so much for stopping by! In reading Asylum, I've also picked up two of his other books that I'm looking forward to read. I've also found an article in which he's interviewed on the evolution of the gothic novel -- interesting stuff!

    Rachael -- If you re-read it, let me know how it goes on the second go-round, and if it is just as creepy!


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