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[373] Asylum – Patrick McGrath

” I glanced at her. In the pink. I rather whimsically reflected that it sounded like a euphemism, something to do with sex; and it was then that it occurred to me that something was happening to Stella, sexually. I regarded her with care. ” (3:40)

Asylum is about fatal attraction. It also reminds me of the film Killing Me Softly. McGrath’s chilling prose creates a continuous premonition of a catastrophe. Set in late 1950s England, the novel takes place in an institution for the criminally insane. Max Raphael, staid, unimaginative and ambitious psychiatrist, takes a job as the deputy superintendent. Unfulfilled in her marriage, since her husband channels all his libido to work, deprived of the physical imagination to continue to find her attractive, Stella quickly falls under the spell of Edgar Stark, a patient, who is driven by morbid unconscious processes to suppose that his late wife, whom he brutally murdered, betrayed him with many men.

She did have moments of sanity when she looked dispassionately at what she was doing. She describes how she drifted out onto the back lawn one evening . . . She was moved suddenly by the idea of the security of her family life, its comfort and meaning and order, all of which rested squarely on Charlie and his welfare. (2:32-33)

Maybe what she feels is a thing of hunger and instinct. So obsessed is she with this man that she rationalizes his violence, crippling her own will and stripping her old pride. Does she not see that every time she goes home after their tête-à-tête she is provoking his dangerous jealousy? The fact that one Egar wants to control is a doctor’s wife is a mark of the extravagant grandiosity of his designs. In other words, this love of Stella is above reason. She is blinded by her unswerving passion. Asylum is narrated and experienced from the point of view of Peter Cleave, a psychiatrist, the eventual superintendent of the hospital, who has first detected her immoral relationship with the patient. Through his eyes her departure into madness is perfectly pictured, but beyond analysis. That she jeopardizes all she has—a home, a husband, a child—for a sexual relationship with a more than mentally-deranged patient is madness. Or, is it just mad love and stubbornness?

At root, I suppose, in spite of everything she loved him, or told herself she did, and women are stubborn in this regard. She had made her choice, she had gone to him willingly, and it was unthinkable to run home because he was ill and his illness robbed him of responsibility. What did surprise me was that she could ignore the proliferating signals that act of violence was imminent. (7:125)

Asylum is a concentrated and manipulated read, with endless scenes of unsettling eroticism. Whatever remorse Stella Raphael may feel about the dire consequences on her family she clings to her illusions, or rather, loyal passion, to the end. In her obduracy, which in turn manifests as a deception to the psychiatrist that she has let go of Edgar Stark, she demonstrates what appears to be infatuation with lustful freedom is not infatuation at all, but an enduring sacrifice to the possibility of happiness. Her regret and remorse are subordinate to the continuity of her passion. She is an adulteress who meets a tragic end with no regret.

254 pp. Vintage Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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5 Responses

  1. I want to find out how she met her tragic end!

  2. OK, so I bought this book after reading your review!! 🙂

  3. […] [373] Asylum – Patrick McGrath […]

  4. One of my absolute favorites. I have two more Patrick McGrath books waiting for me.

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