Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “The Asylum” by John Harwood

the asylumI cannot give you a better teaser of a summary for The Asylum than the one provided on the dust jacket, so here it is:

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.”

From there we are with Georgina (or the woman who believes she is Georgina), as she attempts to make sense of her situation.  We share her confusion and fear, as well as the desire to know the truth about her circumstances and identity.   Discovering the truth, we soon come to realize, hinges upon finding a writing box, a series of letters, and a brooch.  I don’t want to give too much away, as uncovering the many intricate plot points are most of the fun of reading this novel.  Suffice it to say that letters are found, secrets are uncovered, and the ending, while not shocking, is certainly a surprise!

If this all sounds like something straight from the pages of a dark, Gothic, melodramatic Victorian thriller, that’s because it is.  More or less.  As I discussed in my gushing review of Harwood’s other novel, The Seance, the mood Harwood creates is perfect.  The sense of time and place is superb, and Harwood really excels at writing in the style of a late Victorian novelist without it coming across as parody or over-the-top.   Not only are you absorbed into the textured world of late 19th century London and the cold, dreary asylum in Cornwall, you also get the sense that you are truly reading a story of the period.

There are striking similarities between Asylum and Sarah Waters’ novels Affinity and Fingersmith.  I’d suggest either of those books if you enjoyed Asylum.  They share the same style, atmosphere, and Gothic tone, as well as strong female protagonists.  In fact, the plot is almost identical to Fingersmith in a few places, though the resolution is quite different.  For a more modern Gothic novel, with the same sense of mystery and secrets, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale might be a good choice.

If you like twists and turns but aren’t into the Victorian setting and atmosphere, try Gone Girl or Dark Places by Gillian Flynn for modern thrillers that boast great twists, plenty of dark secrets, and loads of suspense.  Her books are darker, more intense, and at times more violent, but still work as read-alikes, I think.

–Marie

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The Camden Public Library brings people together to Read, Connect, and Discover. Here at the CPL Readers Corner Blog, our librarians offer book suggestions, book reviews, read-alikes, and more! Discover new reads, Connect with librarians and other readers, and Read a great book!

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