Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Book Review: THE ASYLUM by John Harwood

The Asylum by John Harwood

Title: The Asylum
Author: John Harwood
Publisher: Random House. Expected publication May 21st 2013
Read: February 18 - 20, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

A brilliant new Gothic thriller from the acclaimed author of The Ghost Writer and The Seance Confused and disoriented, Georgina Ferrars awakens in a small room in Tregannon House, a private asylum in a remote corner of England. She has no memory of the past few weeks. The doctor, Maynard Straker, tells her that she admitted herself under the name Lucy Ashton the day before, then suffered a seizure. When she insists he has mistaken her for someone else, Dr. Straker sends a telegram to her uncle, who replies that Georgina Ferrars is at home with him in London: “Your patient must be an imposter.” Suddenly her voluntary confinement becomes involuntary. Who is the woman in her uncle’s house? And what has become of her two most precious possessions, a dragonfly pin left to her by her mother, and a journal that contains the only record of those missing weeks? Georgina’s perilous quest to free herself takes her from a cliffside cottage on the Isle of Wight to the secret passages of Tregannon House, into a web of hidden family ties on which her survival depends.

Another delicious read from the author praised by Ruth Rendell as having “a gift for creating suspense, apparently effortlessly, as if it belongs in the nature of fiction.”

My thoughts:

“Intriguing” was the word that first came to mind when I received John Harwood’s “The Asylum” in the mail. Always one to value a good spooky gothic mystery, I put it on top of my tbr pile and got stuck into it.

The novel opens with narrator Georgina Ferrars, a young woman living in Victorian London, waking in a strange place and being told she is an in-patient at Tregannon House, a mental asylum on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. Worse still, she has been admitted under a different name, Lucy Ashton, which she apparently used to introduce herself when first coming to the asylum after having suffered a serious grand-mal seizure causing confusion and memory loss. Georgina has no memory of the incident, or of the weeks leading up to her current predicament. When her desperate attempt to escape the asylum fails, Georgina realises that her only way out of the institution is to find out what has really happened to her and to prove her true identity. With the help of an unusual ally she sets out to uncover the truth.

The Asylum is partially told by Georgina Ferrars’ narrative, partly by letters from a mysterious relative to her mother, and partly by Georgina’s own notes in a journal she kept before her memory loss. I am not usually a fan of narratives in letter format, but oddly it worked for me in this instance, and added to the mystery.

Harwood does an excellent job in building mystery and intrigue, and had me wondering as to the true identity of Georgina Ferrars until all was revealed. However, I thought that Harwood could have taken better advantage of the setting – a spooky mental asylum on a Cornish moor – to create a truly chilling and atmospheric story. As it was, Georgina’s stay at the facility sounded almost sheltered and comfortable, with none of the spine-chilling details we normally associate with Victorian mental institutions. So whilst the mystery was grounded in strong foundations, it lacked the chill factor which would have seen me curl under the bedcovers, terrified and mesmerised and feeling very lucky to live in the 21st century. For health professionals, the cause of Georgina’s amnesia will probably become fairly obvious long before the end of the novel – for others it may come as a total surprise and still have the wow-factor of an unexpected twist. As I had guessed that particular detail before it was revealed, the ending was not unexpected, and perhaps a bit too Frankenstein-ish for me. But that is something every reader must judge for themselves, and I will not give away any more here.

This is the first novel by John Harwood I have read, and I am interested in picking up some of his previous books, which have received high accolades by his fans. As far as historic mysteries go, I did enjoy the atmosphere and the suspense. Though not in the same class as S. J. Bolton as far as gothic spine-chillers are concerned, I did enjoy “The Asylum” and look forward to reading more from this author.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher through The Reading Room. However, all views expressed in this review are strictly my own.

I read this book as part of the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge - historical mystery.

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