A CRUEL MADNESS by Colin Thubron


Email this review


Set in a lunatic asylum and in a boys' public school in Wales, this riddle of a tale is told by a hypersensitive, unreliable narrator, a sort of lonely long-distance runner gone sour in his middle age. The book is of a genre dominated by Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and John Fowles' The Collector, and could have used newer plot hooks and more enticing characters as bait. At first, the taut, dry narrative voice is appealing. The place is deftly drawn (Thubron is also a travel writer). ""Glass galleries circle the building's southern front, where the inmates sit as if ripening in the sun."" Daniel, a public-school English master, volunteers at the mental hospital, promoting essay-writing contests among the patients. Ten years ago, at 31, he had an unconsummated but intense affair with Sophia, a doctor. Now one day, from the asylum window, he sees her sitting in the garden. He runs out and they chat--she is clearly a patient, scarcely recognizes him, but he succeeds in getting her to enter the essay contest. Sophia reappears unpredictably, in glimpses--like a ghost. Daniel desperately wants to leave his residential post at the school, yet can't. His love affair is recounted in flashback, once by Daniel and twice by Sophia; the similarity between the voices, while perhaps intentional, is deadly repetitious. When Sophia tells Daniel she's leaving him, he draws a knife, and dark deeds are hinted at, yet we never learn whether or not he killed her, though it turns out he has actually been incarcerated in the asylum for years. What, then, of the prep school? And did Sophia ever exist, or was she a figment based on his mum, who, we learn late, with the flaccid slap of empty revelation, was also mad? Even the asylum might be imaginary, "". . .a single magnified and shattered brain, in which each inmate is only a wandering."" As long as we believed in Daniel's reporting of the external world, we cared, but when his world fragments--and we can't distinguish between the real and the imagined--this seems like nothing but a dismal and pointless exercise. All in all, an almost fine (but ultimately frustrating) ghost story.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly--dist. by Little, Brown