THE ASYLUM by John Harwood


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Creepy doings—certificates of insanity, switched identities, morbid personalities—in and around an asylum in 19th-century England.

While it’s not exactly clear why the Victorian period is so amenable to such sinister and disturbing phenomena, Harwood certainly makes the atmosphere work here. In 1882, a young woman wakes up at Tregannon House, a former mansion in Cornwall, now turned into an insane asylum run by Dr. Straker and his gruesomely unwholesome assistant, Frederic Mordaunt. Although the day before she had introduced herself as Lucy Ashton, later that night she is found unconscious, and when she emerges from a nightmare the following morning, she’s convinced her name is Georgina Ferrars and that she lives with her uncle in London. When Dr. Straker goes to London to sort out the confusion with Ferrars’ (or is it Ashton's?) identity, he comes back to Tregannon House with the disturbing report that she must be an imposter, for he met the “real” Georgina Ferrars at her uncle’s. Disturbingly, the more the Georgina in the asylum tries to assert her identity, the more the authority figures are persuaded she’s delusional, so she’s committed to the involuntary wing of the asylum, where she’s convinced the only way for her to reclaim her identity is to escape. Also upsetting is that she begins to have flashbacks to childhood memories in which she had an imaginary friend/alter ego named Rosina. We’re then taken back to a series of letters from Rosina Wentworth to Emily Ferrars about 20 years previously—and eventually to a journal written by Georgina Ferrars. Rosina breathlessly reports to her cousin all the latest gossip, dwelling especially on her own romantic entanglements with Felix Mordaunt, owner of a mansion in Cornwall. Once again, identities shift.

While the Gothicism works well, at times Harwood’s convolutions become as mystifying to the reader as to the characters he depicts.

Pub Date: May 21st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-544-00347-7
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2013


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