The Asylum by John Harwood

This is wonderful: an utterly readable, utterly compelling gothic mystery, set in Victorian England.

The AsylumIt begins with a young woman waking in a strange bed, in a strange room. The smell and texture of her blanket was wrong, the coarse flannel nightgown she was wearing was not her own, and when she opened her eyes and saw a grille covering the small window, roughly painted walls, a heavy oak door with a small aperture she knew that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

And she had no memory at all of how she had got there.

She was told that she was an inmate in a Tregannon House, an asylum set in the wild Cornish Countryside of Bodmin Moor. She was told that she had presented herself as a voluntary patient the previous evening, giving the name Lucy Ashton.

She knew that she was Georgina Ferrars, but the luggage she had brought, the clothes and jewellery they held, were not her own, and she still had no memory of what had happened, no explanation at all.

A telegram to her uncle, her only living relation would prove who she was, but a reply came back saying that Georgina was safe and well at home …..

Georgina’s perceptions, and her growing horror and bewilderment, are portrayed absolutely perfectly. I was hooked!

I call her Georgina because she was sure that she was Georgina, and because I liked her and I wanted to believe her. It was quite possible that she was unreliable, or deluded, but I was inclined to think not.

She tried to find answers, to find a way out of the asylum, but she was frustrated at every turn.

But she discovered a journal and a cache of letters hidden in the lining of her trunk. The narrative began to shift, moving between Georgina’s story in the present, her journal that gave her some of the explanations she had been seeking about her recent past, and the letters that had been written to her mother years earlier, where she saw familiar names, and began to see answers and to ask new questions.

All three strands of the story are intriguing and compelling, and John Harwood spun a wonderful gothic tale of family secrets, questions of identity and sanity around them. The atmosphere was wonderful, they were some lovely touches, and there was a marvellous twist, that had me asking new questions and reforming my theories, three-quarters of the way through the book.

There were moments when I was reminded of Sarah Waters, there were moments when I was reminded of Wilkie Collins, but there were far more moments when I was completely caught up with Georgina’s story and situation.

The possibility that she was  deluded, that the Georgina she said was an imposter was the real Georgina, but she was so engaging, so believable, so realistic in her approach to her situation, that I really wanted to believe her and I really wanted her to find her way out of the asylum.

I give great credit to John Harwood for making Tregannon House an enlightened institution, and not creating easy drama from cruel practices. My only, very small disappointments, were with the letters that read like a narrative with breaks rather than real letters, and with a highly improbable clause in a will that was used to delay a particular revelation.

The ending was a little over-dramatic, and not quite as tightly plotted as the rest of the book. I had the feeling that the author had worked out the history but hadn’t worked out how to resolve Georgina’s situation, and so he forced things rather. But he did tie up all of the loose ends, and I was pleased that it didn’t tie them up too tightly. The future held possibilities, but not certainties.

So The Asylum isn’t quite perfect but it’s still a lovely piece of Gothic Victoriana; there’s enough to hold lovers of this kind of book, and it’s also accessible enough to those who less familiar with the genre.

And it’s more than good enough for me to want to go back and read John Harwood’s two earlier novels.

9 responses

  1. Glad you enjoyed it as it’s one I’ve been waiting on to arrive in the library. I’ve only read The Ghost Writer and loved it.

  2. Ooo, sounds delicious. No copies at Toronto PL, but I’ve reserved The Ghost Writer.

    Interesting, the variety of writers named John Harwood, and the diverse fields they write in.

    Oh wait…. I took a second look. There are copies on order. Yay.

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