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Book Review: Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

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It is September 1954, and the place is Shutter Island, one of a string of islands off Boston, home to the Ashecliffe hospital for the criminally insane, where the worst of the worst are kept. One of these bad characters is Rachel Solando, a mother who drowned her three children and somehow managed to disappear from this maximum security institution. To find her, two U.S. Marshals are sent from Boston by ferry.

Most of us do not think twice about our perception of reality: we assume that what we see, hear, and remember is what actually exists and has really happened. This certainly applies to the books we read. But what if our grasp of reality is more tentative than we thought? What if what we assume to be happening is not what is actually taking place? This superb psychological thriller examines these questions to a frightening effect by assaulting the reader's sense of what is real in the story and what is not. First published in 2003, Island is being made into a motion picture with release date sometime next year, but if you can't wait for the movie, and if you love disturbing, mind-bending fiction, you owe to yourself to get a copy of this frightening thriller.

As Daniels and Aule investigate the disappearance, they encounter more questions than answers, and the story takes on a Twilight Zone quality: How was Rachel able to escape from her locked room, barefoot, through guard checkpoints, and into the inhospitable island, filled with wild thorn bushes and rats the size of a moccasin? Why are there no signs of her flight anywhere: where are the footprints, the bent vegetation to mark her furtive passage?

The only logical explanation seems to be that Rachel had inside help in her escape. Was Dr. Sheehan, who seems to have left the island during the lock down following her escape, the one who helped Rachel? Rachel was certainly a woman of secrets, leaving behind a bizarre riddle. But why would she leave the riddle behind if she and her doctor were planning a life together? It seems as if Rachel wanted to tell Daniels something and hid her message inside an enigma.

Unanswered questions and uncooperative staff make the escape investigation difficult, if not impossible, for Daniels. So much so that Daniels eventually concludes that he can do nothing and decides to leave on the next ferry back to Boston. Except that he can't leave. Apparently, no one ever leaves Ashecliffe. At first, the explanation is the approaching hurricane. Then more sinister monsters rear their heads and bar his way off the island. Eventually, the apparent reality of his arrival itself is called into question.

The longer Daniels remains at Ashecliffe, the more uncertain his reality becomes — eventually, his partner vanishes, and the doctors try to convince Daniels that he came alone, that there was never a Chuck. In a truly mind-bending twist, Solando suddenly reappears, claiming to have simply been lost. Perhaps the woman is an impostor? And who is the woman hiding out in the island's caves, claiming to be Dr. Rachel Solando, who reveals to Daniels the truth about secret brainwashing experiments going on at the facility?

In a psychological thriller, suspense results from the protagonist becoming cut off from ordinary reality of his fellow characters, entering a world in which ordinary rules of behavior do not apply. Daniels is cut off from others around him, as people he trusted turn out to be less than trustworthy, and plunged into a state of being in which he can trust no one. Certainly the rules that apply at the facility are not in any way shape or form like those that operate in the everyday, adding to his isolation. The more isolated Daniels becomes, the harder it is for him to know anything. Just what is going on at Ashecliffe? Are Chuck and Rachel who they seem to be? And who, indeed, is Daniels himself? Strands of reality are broken and rearranged into new narratives that rob Daniels of his bearings and his identity.

At first, Daniels seems to be nothing more than a U.S. Marshal investigating a disappearance, but as his life story comes to the surface and as the riddle left by Rachel is solved, Daniels' identity becomes harder to pin down. Is Daniels really working for a U.S. Senator investigating what is happening on the island? Or is Daniels a mental patient who has been at the facility for years, a deeply troubled man whose “investigation” is nothing more than an elaborate hoax staged for his treatment by Dr. Sheehan? Certainly it would seem that way, and many a reader will come away with that reading.

But the text also supports a reading in which the doctors are trying to brainwash Daniels into believing that he is a disturbed man, if one gives any credence to the intimations of secret brainwashing experiments interwoven through the story, with the events of the story becoming nothing more than elaborately staged deception on their part to make Daniels reveal whether he is resisting the brainwashing. Whatever the case may be, through a clever juxtaposition of the standard psychiatric approach, wherein the patient must first accept that he is ill, Daniels is driven to accept who the doctors on the island say he is, despite knowing that they are wrong, facing a lobotomy if they think that he does not believe who they say he is.

At stake in Shutter Island, as in any other psychological thriller, is the mental state of the character — his identity, and his mental freedom. All these come under assault as the doctors on the island attempt to convince Daniels that he is a mental patient with a violent history. Naturally he resists this process of reframing, but his resistance only tightens the grip that the institution has on him.

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A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org