Nights in the Asylum by Carol Lefevre

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Nights in the Asylum by Carol Lefevre

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Miri, Zette and Aziz find themselves sharing a house. They are all running away, trying to hide and at the same time trying to find a way of stopping having to do both. Set in a small-town Australia Lefevre's taut prose is very evocative...but the story doesn't quite "get there". A beach-read.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: May 2007
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330448895

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Miri has struggled through her daughter's funeral, acknowledged her husband's absence, convinced the doctors that it is safe to allow her to depart the hospital... what else can she do now, but go back? Back to the beginning. To a place that was once home.

Out in the desert that is about as far as you can get from the sands of Afghanistan Aziz squats by the roadside without transport, without water, with little enough cause for hope. He works through the 33-bead rosary marking the 99 names, his trust still in Allah...

Suzette and Jordan try not to make a scene, but clearly they have problems - one or other of them, or maybe both. Someone is more than a little crazy.

Chandelle runs a remote roadhouse and longs for a life... but in the meantime...

Mervyn as bigot and a bully, and barely surviving his own disastrous course.

It is into the lives of these and others that Miri wanders when, shortly after Alice's funeral, she decides to go home... away from the city, back to the Australian desert town that thrived on the mines but has since degenerated into archetypal misfitville, the place people remain only if they have nowhere else to go, or no means of getting there.

If people wonder about why Miri Kissack (for she is still a Kissack despite two marriages) came back... no-one asks. In places like this no-one asks any questions, and yet everyone seems to know. It is a town small enough 'not to be able to walk down the street without bumping into someone you know... big enough to get lost in'.

In returning, Miri is going back to her grandparents' home... a place where her immigrant Cuban grandmother tried to recreate her island paradise... a place which later, under her aunt's tenure, became a home for every passing waif and stray... and if money changed hands in exchange for consolation, was that so bad? It is a place of which Miri has happy memories... but times are clearly harder now. Her ageing aunt is in the hospital, the bizarre gardens are suffering from the lack of water, but "the Cuban place" is still a kind of sanctuary for the lost.

Only now, with the mining gone, the town is quieter and it is harder to hide.

Suzette really needs to get away. She promises she won't stay long, but Jordan is looking for her - and he is 'the law around here' - and she may not survive him finding her. Aziz is a lost soul in every sense, but he too eventually finds his way to Havana Gardens.

We follow these people - and those around them, Mervyn, Miri's aunt Lois, still painted & smoking & drinking, but looking for the Madonna in the dust storms, Con indomitable in her seventies, still watering her mother's garden in contravention of all the regulations and only in the hospital because she fell off a horse, Artie Rose, an unofficial vet, since he ceased being allowed to be an official doctor - through a hot dry summer Christmas. We follow them through their days of loss and bewilderment. And as each is allowed a few pages in turn, we learn how it came to this.

Nights at the Asylum is a strange book. It draws you into its imagery... and the photographic interests of the author echo both in the subject matter, and in the vividity of place. It has a harsh arid beauty... but not one that really enthrals. It is as claustrophobic a book as the walls of Havana Gardens could conjure, that feels safe and intriguing whilst you are there, but which you are still not too disappointed to leave.

It is overwhelmingly a book about home, and about loss... and the pragmatism and surprising optimism of its characters does not convince that there will ever be an ending to the sadness and fear that seems to settle on the pages like desert dust.

Most of the novel is a building towards a conclusion which, when it comes, is largely predictable and yet disappointingly underplayed. The epilogue (or appendix) which seeks to tantalise with possible pictures of what became of them all... was just a little too obscure for this reader. Or maybe I just wasn't concerned enough about any of them to care.

Nights in the Asylum is a very atmospheric novel, deftly exploring relationships within families and beyond them, touching on aspects of race and discrimination as they have played out in small-town Australia, but sadly it doesn't quite deliver on plot.

A pleasant enough read for a long hot afternoon.

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