Haunting, compellingly written, Asylum tells the story of Stella Raphael, the beautiful, impressionable young wife of Max, a forensic psychiatrist at a well-respected psychiatric institution outside of London. Unlike some fictional "unhappy wives", Stella is not a foolish heroine; in fact she is intelligent, perceptive, and quite well-versed in her husband's metier, a fact which will serve her well later in the story.
Compelled by a powerful mix of physical attraction, unfulfilled ambitions, and fascination with the world outside her marriage, she embarks on a dangerous affair with a mental patient, Edgar Stark. It is a tribute to McGrath's art that you never question for one moment how it happens or why, to our horror, she continues it, despite the dreadful consequences. In fact, you find yourself almost understanding her compulsion, wondering whether you would be able to do any better than she does in the end.
But the real villian in the story may not be the frightening Edgar, nor Stella, but the narrator himself. Ostensibly a dispassionate observer - a fellow psychiatrist in the Raphaels' circle - you find yourself wondering, as the story unfolds, what is the real truth about what happened to Stella? Who is deceiving whom? And finally, who and what has finally been manipulated?
Asylum has been described as a Gothic novel. I disagree. Gothic novels are filled with spooky references to ancient horrors that may or may not be real. Asylum, on the other hand, is all too real. The fact that there are no sleights-of-hand in it; the reluctant understanding that Stella's situation, although it may be extreme, is all too possible, is what makes this novel the beautiful and disturbing piece of literature that it is.