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Review: Asylum

Review: Asylum

Title: Asylum
Author: Madeleine Roux
Published: 2013
Length: 313 pages

My star rating: ★ ½

Note: This review touches on mental health issues and the latter half discusses some disturbing psychiatric practices.

When Daniel Crawford arrives in New Hampshire for a summer college prep program, he hopes to make a few like-minded friends and has no intention of dwelling on the sordid history of Brookline, the former mental institution-turned-dormitory in which he will live. He immediately hits it off with Abby, a budding artist, and Jordan, a math whiz, despite his previous difficulties with making friends. The three of them bond by exploring the off-limits portion of Brookline. They make some disturbing finds, and afterward, the summer begins to crumble beneath their feet. Dan starts having strange dreams, losing his memory, and fighting with his friends. Before long, strange events begin putting students in danger. As tempers flare and tension escalates, Dan becomes convinced that only he can stop the madness.

Despite my love of books such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and even The Silence of the Lambs, insane asylums are one of my biggest fears, right up there with spiders and nuclear, well, everything.

Therefore, I stopped several times and asked myself, “Why are you even reading this book?”

The answers are simple: it has a pretty cover, a so-so blurb, and it’s set in New Hampshire, where I’m spending my summer.

More’s the pity that its geographic setting has little to no impact on the story. Brookline could be any former mental health facility anywhere in the U.S., or even in the UK, really. It made me wonder whether Ms. Roux (who lives in California) has ever actually been to New Hampshire or even New England.

This book was quite disappointing. It boasts bland, unmemorable prose; characters who are all fairly one-note, sometimes barely fleshed-out stereotypes. Abby is the Flighty, Sensitive Artist type and Jordan’s main personality traits are Being Gay and Being an Asshole. That’s especially unfortunate, because a character’s sexuality should not be their defining characteristic. Representation is important, sure, but Jordan’s being gay came up over and over and over again, as if Ms. Roux feared readers might forget. All three were saddled with serious psychological baggage, and the text strongly implied that each could be mentally ill in some way.

And as for the plot, well, it was painfully convoluted. Is it paranormal, horror, mystery? Of course not everything has to fit into a narrow box. But picking a genre or two, a general framework for her story, might have helped Madeleine Roux write something compelling and coherent. Or at least something more compelling and more coherent than this. I won’t say that the “twists” were predictable, since I’m terrible at predicting anything, but I will say that I wasn’t very surprised at the Big Reveal.

I also know that this is part of a series, but way too many plot threads were simply left dangling at the end of the book. Way too many questions had been asked without anyone or anything hinting at an answer. It was a confusing and unsatisfying experience.

The clumsy use of the “unreliable narrator” technique—and the fact that Ms. Roux does not seem to understand that it works a lot better in first-person than third—doesn’t help matters, either.

There’s also a Hunger Games reference in here. Seriously. Jordan accuses Dan of being “a regular Peeta Mellark” in a stunning display of a YA book referencing another YA book. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the Hunger Games. But that was clumsy and kind of embarrassing.

My biggest issue, though, was the overall portrayal of everything related to mental health and the Brookline institution itself.

Please don’t read that as a defense of the psychiatric field as it existed for most of the twentieth century (and before). For a long time, asylums and sanatoriums were pretty horrific places. Living conditions were generally dreadful, and doctors were relatively helpless to treat mental illness in any significant way.

There was a school of doctors who believed that there were structural differences between the brains of mental patients and those of healthy people. Despite being unable to find any such differences, this theory was partially responsible for the “therapies” and “treatments” that dominate modern ideas about insane asylums: shock treatments (both chemical and electric) and psychosurgery, such as lobotomy.

I know way too much about lobotomy thanks to my AP Psychology classs, for which I readthe memoir My Lobotomy. Walter Freeman “perfected” an outpatient procedure he called transorbital lobotomy in the early 1940s, and it soon became extremely popular both in and out of asylums as a “miracle cure.” It was not. Its consequences ranged from mild to debilitating. The scientific community gradually turned against Freeman after the advent of anti-psychotic drugs in the 1950s, and most doctors eventually rejected the connection between mental illness and the physical makeup of the brain.

With that gruesome history lesson out of the way, let me assure you that there is a point. Early on in Asylum, the gang stumbles upon photographs of such treatments. One shows a young girl who is described this way:

She had a patterned dress and was wearing fine jewelry. But a jagged scar slashed across her forehead and there was something wrong with her eyes. (37)

(There’s a ridiculous picture, too.)

Okay, no. Freeeman’s procedure did not leave scars. Previously, it was more invasive—performed by a surgeon in a hospital under general anesthesia—yes. But they did not enter a patient’s brain through the forehead, for God’s sake. Real scars would have been on or just behind the temples. And not drawn with crayon.

Readers are also expected to believe that little Lucy, the girl described above, was admitted to a hospital for the criminally insane in 1968, and that she was given a lobotomy there. True, they were still being performed in the 60s, but in far smaller numbers. Freeman, the procedure’s biggest advocate, performed several on minors—but they made up only 0.6% of his total patients.

But Luth! you might say, Some children WERE lobotomized, and that’s sick and wrong, so who cares if the technical details are accurate?!

I do, because despite how immoral, harrowing, and frightening such things were, I find it disingenuous to use them for shock value, all while misrepresenting the facts. Do I think doctors like Freeman were egomaniacal monsters? To some degree, yes. But I think it’s just as likely that they were merely deluded, desperate, misguided men with bad “facts” and/or terrible ideas who, by and large, genuinely wanted to help people but ended up hurting them.

But Ms. Roux could not resist the siren song of B-movie horror and modeled one villainous character—the warden of Brookline—on such doctors. The warden has a “secret” surgical method of “curing” insanity, but that’s all readers are ever told. The only details given are that he ends up a) covered in blood and b) arrested.

Maybe in 1888 or even in 1938, but 1968 or 1970? I’m kind of skeptical. Nurse Ratched is one thing. This is entirely another. I can only suspend my disbelief so far, and a thousand unrealistic things in this novel—not even including the paranormal stuff—strained it to the max.

Maybe I’m asking for too much from a YA novel. I don’t know. But this book was just drivel. The plot was overcomplicated; the photographs and illustrations were overwrought and completely pointless (has no one explained to Ms. Roux that horror can be far more horrifying in someone’s mind than on paper/on-screen?); and the characters were lifeless and not at all compelling.

I’m also subtracting half a star because one of the photographs depicting the church that Dan visited—in the middle of New Hampshire, mind you—is undeniably from the American South and not something you would probably never see in New England. A lot of the other pictures failed to match up to their descriptions in the novel as well. That’s just lazy editing.

(Though I couldn’t find the picture from the novel, it looked quite a bit like this church in Tennessee. This architectural style is very common in that region, particularly in the Deep South.)

P.S.: Madeleine Roux lists Waverly Hills, an eerie-looking facility built as a hospital for tuberculosis patients, as one of her “favorite asylums.” Excuse me, ma’am, but Waverly Hills is in my hometown, so I know a thing or two about it. It housed TB patients for fifty years. My grandmother’s sister died there as a teenager in the 30s. It is a sad and haunting place, and it did ultimately become a nursing home whose residents included the mentally handicapped , but it was never an “asylum.” From Wikipedia: Rumors later inaccurately termed Woodhaven [the nursing home] as an insane asylum, lending to many urban legends.” [emphasis mine]

I know this is nitpicky, but it makes me question all her other “research,” too. It also makes it sound like she has a fetish for mental institutions…which makes me take even more issue with her novel.

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  1. Pingback: Review: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall | Luthien Reviews

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