Summer 1959. The Mental Health Act has become law. At a hospital for the criminally insane, Stella Raphael, the bored wife of a psychiatrist, becomes obsessed with a dangerous inmate, Edgar Stark. An artistic soul, he seems charming and passionate. Despite the fact that he murdered his first wife, Stella can’t help falling for him. Their affair threatens to destroy everything around her…
Despite the fantastic book cover, Asylum isn’t a horror story. It’s essentially an exploration of how our impulses and obsessions affect our lives. Stella sacrifices her family, her respectability, and her mental health to the mysterious and extremely disturbed Edgar Stark. That’s not exactly a spoiler, by the way – it’s obvious from the beginning. That’s because of the unusual narrative style. The novel is written like it’s a case study, with Stella’s motives and state of mind examined from a psychiatrist’s point of view. Peter Cleave is the narrator, deputy superintendent of the hospital and a good friend of Stella’s. He’s sympathetic towards her, attributing her behaviour to loneliness, the restrictions of her role as housewife, and neglect by her husband. I found him to be an interesting character, as you get the sense he’s holding his real feelings back, replacing them with non-judgemental observations. At first I found the story difficult to get into, but then I got used to the narrative style and the straightforwardness of it didn’t bother me.
The story is deceptively simple, but I think there are layers to it, waiting to be uncovered. The title itself, Asylum, has different meanings. I liked the plot and thought the pacing was just right. I kept expecting some kind of devastating confrontation at the end, something involving Edgar, but that never happened. The focus of the story is how the brief affair had a tragic impact on Stella’s life. It’s also a portrait of depression. I will always remember it.
In my edition of the book (Penguin Essentials, 2015 – originally published 1996) there’s a foreword by the author, which describes how the idea for the story came about and the sad event that occurred while he was writing. It also turns out that Stella was originally the narrator, but McGrath decided he needed to take a step back and consider why she was behaving that way. I’m glad he made that decision.