The Asylum by John Harwood

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The Asylum by John Harwood

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Stevens
Reviewed by Robin Stevens
Summary: A chilling and claustrophobic piece of mock Victoriana that asks whether we can ever trust
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 9780224097413

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A woman wakes up in an unfamiliar room. She doesn’t know where she is, or how she got there, but at least she knows who she is: her name is Georgina Ferrars and she lives with her uncle in Gresham’s Yard, London.

A man comes into the woman’s room. He tells her that his name is Doctor Straker and that she is in Tregannon House Asylum having signed herself in because she feared her own insanity. Of course, the woman thinks, there must have been some mistake. She asks Doctor Straker to contact her uncle, and while she waits for confirmation of her identity she confides in the doctor’s handsome and sensitive assistant Frederic. She tells him about her isolated and slightly bizarre childhood in Devon with her mother and aunt, and Frederic seems to believe her.

Until Doctor Straker comes back with a telegram. Georgina Ferrars, it says, is safe and well in Gresham’s Yard. The woman in Tregannon House, therefore, cannot possibly be Georgina. In an instant, our protagonist’s entire life crumbles around her, and she is left wondering if she is mad – or if someone is lying to her . . .

This is the set-up of The Asylum by John Harwood. It’s a beginning that reads as a masterclass in creeping horror, the tension ramping up in infinitesimally gentle turns of the wheel until the rope snaps and you find yourself trapped in a claustrophobic nightmare.

It’s the terror of female powerlessness that Harwood chooses to play on in The Asylum, a fear that fits perfectly with his chosen era. The sensation novels of the mid-nineteenth century are filled with tragic women who lose everything (generally beginning with their property and ending with their lives) because their gender means that there is no legal reason why they should be believed. It’s a frightening thought, partly because it seems so alien to us now, and partly because I can’t quite rid myself of the creeping suspicion that it could still happen.

The Asylum has some very intriguing things to say about memory and identity, about how much we’re defined by documents and how difficult it would be to absolutely prove we are who we say we are if those documents were taken away from us. Its Victorian setting makes those points even more interesting – all we in 2013 have to know our nineteenth-century counterparts by is through the records they left behind. What if those records were destroyed? This is a book published in 2013 that explores the idea of a Victorian woman literally being written out of history, and as a result, Harwood is able to mix solidly Victorian personal narrative with distinctly twentieth-century ideas about unreliability.

The sheer terror of Georgina’s situation is conveyed beautifully – at times, the first part of the novel feels unbearable. Every move Georgina makes to escape brings her circling back to the Asylum. The whole world seems under the control of Doctor Straker, and it’s very difficult, at times, not to fall under his spell and genuinely wonder whether Georgina really is who she says she is. Certainly, Georgina believes her own story, but is that any reason why that should make it true?

Harwood does such a beautiful job of raising doubt in our minds that there’s little wonder that what begins as a perfectly pitched and desperately chilling horror story and becomes a deliciously tangled mystery fails to quite live up to itself in its final part. Harwood’s twisted his readers’ brains up into such a frenzy of suspicion that the denouement when it comes, seems unbelievable because we’ve been taught to disbelieve. After such a promising beginning, the shocks delivered in the novel’s finale felt disappointingly conventional to me. It’s Wilkie Collins with a dash of Sarah Waters, a pastiche of pastiches that doesn’t add anything of its own.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating its issues slightly. This is still a very enjoyable book, a chilling and deeply satisfying piece of mock Victoriana, but it also has flaws that can’t be overlooked. It veers between being a frightening and extremely intelligent response to Victorian popular novel conventions and a slightly lazily sensational rehashing of them. And while in places it’s wickedly good, I wish that it could have kept to that pitch of excellence throughout. I came away from The Asylum with the feeling that although it often gets very close to being something great, it certainly isn’t there yet.

For more historical horror, try The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. You might also enjoy As the Cards Fall by Christina Green.

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