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Book Review: Asylum by Patrick McGrath

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Asylum by Patrick McGrath is an intense study of self-obsession and self-interest. Narrated by and experienced from the point of view of Peter Cleave, a psychiatrist, we follow the development of a relationship between Stella Raphael and Edgar. Stella is married to Max, who is a clinical colleague of Peter’s in a mental hospital for the criminally insane where Edgar is a patient. Unlike Peter, Max finds his career, his marriage and his life somewhat stalled. Stella finds Max, her professionally challenged husband, something of a bore. She sees herself destined for something altogether more exciting, perhaps exclusive, than her husband can provide or inspire.

A son, Charlie, seems to make his life in the gaps of his patents’ relationship. When Edgar, a patient committed to the penal psychiatric hospital in whose grounds the Raphael’s reside, responds to Stella’s playful dreams, events pull both of them inexorably towards destruction. The fact that Edgar’s crime was both horrifically violent and perpetrated against his then partner adds both tension and intrigue to the plot.

The relationship between Stella and Edgar develops initially via innuendo, but is soon explicitly recognised by both of them. On the face of things, Edgar is not manipulating her, but he would not be Edgar if he did not both see and take his chance. With Stella’s help, unwitting or otherwise, Edgar escapes. She meets up with him in London, encounters that are facilitated by a shadowy character called Nick. Stella is captivated by Edgar’s artistic talent. He is a sculptor, but he has a tendency and a history of destroying the objects he creates, especially those that he apparently holds the dearest. But Stella is attracted to him, becomes obsessed with him, moves in with him. Apparently she devotes her entire being to her lover to the extent that that she destroys her own family and herself to pursue her relationship with him.

In the later stages of the destruction, she comes under the wing of Peter Cleave, who assists her to confront the unacceptable reality of her actions. Paradoxically, even through this professional association, self-interest comes to dominate in a fascinating and unexpected, if not altogether surprising way.

Asylum is a highly concentrated but compelling read. It is a detailed, perhaps forensic analysis of Stella’s descent into an abyss of self-obsession. Eventually, this blocks out all reality and gives rise to an outcome which ought to provoke abhorrence, even from her. But in the end all she sees is herself. And, perhaps, in this respect she is not particularly anything special.

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  • jellybeans

    I was fascinated by the movie so i bought the book. i liked it but it left a bitter after taste. as a woman and as mother i could not find any compassion in me for stella. i understand that a woman can get psychotic and kills her children but the way the story went i felt stella went down with her own free will rather than as a psychotic patient. she was simply a selfish person.

  • Dirty Birdy

    i want to see the movie nd read the book. it sounds creepy nd awesome at the some time. I creepy myself so i think i’ll like to read this nd maybe even watch the movie.