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4.4 out of 5 stars
Asylum
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on 20 July 2003
This is one of the most engaging and gripping reads I have ever come across. McGrath has an incredible skill of drawing the reader into a false sense of security before cruelly creating the some of the darkest and most depressing scenes in modern literature. Stella is a woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a longing for passion. She finds it in Edgar, an articulate and seemingly sane prisoner of an Asylum. The book is woven in an unsentimental and stark, often harsh format by a psychiatrist. This clever viewpoint allows the book to maintain a raw and very real feel throughout. The disturbing nature of the book and its haunting characters played on my mind for many months afterwards. I would recommend it to anyone who simply has a love of words and love stories in their original, tragic structures...
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Asylum by Patrick McGrath

Asylum by Patrick McGrath is an intense study of self-obsession and self-interest. Narrated by and experienced from the point of view of Peter Cleave, a psychiatrist, we follow the development of a relationship between Stella Raphael and Edgar. Stella is married to Max, who is a clinical colleague of Peter's in a mental hospital for the criminally insane where Edgar is a patient. Unlike Peter, Max finds his career, his marriage and his life somewhat stalled. Stella finds Max, her professionally challenged husband, something of a bore. She sees herself destined for something altogether more exciting, perhaps exclusive, than her husband can provide or inspire. A son, Charlie, seems to make his life in the gaps of his patents' relationship. When Edgar, a patient committed to the penal psychiatric hospital in whose grounds the Raphael's reside, responds to Stella's playful dreams, events pull both of them inexorably towards destruction. The fact that Edgar's crime was both horrifically violent and perpetrated against his then partner adds both tension and intrigue to the plot.

The relationship between Stella and Edgar develops initially via innuendo, but is soon explicitly recognised by both of them. On the face of things, Edgar is not manipulating her, but he would not be Edgar if he did not both see and take his chance. With Stella's help, unwitting or otherwise, Edgar escapes. She meets up with him in London, encounters that are facilitated by a shadowy character called Nick. Stella is captivated by Edgar's artistic talent. He is a sculptor, but he has a tendency and a history of destroying the objects he creates, especially those that he apparently holds the dearest. But Stella is attracted to him, becomes obsessed with him, moves in with him. Apparently she devotes her entire being to her lover to the extent that that she destroys her own family and herself to pursue her relationship with him.

In the later stages of the destruction, she comes under the wing of Peter Cleave, who assists her to confront the unacceptable reality of her actions. Paradoxically, even through this professional association, self-interest comes to dominate in a fascinating and unexpected, if not altogether surprising way.

Asylum is a highly concentrated but compelling read. It is a detailed, perhaps forensic analysis of Stella's descent into an abyss of self-obsession. Eventually, this blocks out all reality and gives rise to an outcome which ought to provoke abhorrence, even from her. But in the end all she sees is herself. And, perhaps, in this respect she is not particularly anything special.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 22 January 2008
Max Raphael is the new Deputy Superintendent at a provincial asylum outside London. Stella, his beautiful, gregarious, intelligent wife is suffocating in her marriage. She embarks on a intense and dangerous affair with patient Edgar Stark, who is incarcerated for murdering his wife and then mutilating her corpse.

The initiation, the duration, and the fall-out of the affair is all narrated in the cool, clinical tones of Max's colleague at the asylum, Peter Cleave. However, from the very beginning there is a sense that Cleave might not be the most reliable of narrators. He certainly shows a very keen interest in both Edgar and Stella, in different ways, and seems to be omniscient in their lives, if not in reality, then certainly within his own imaginings.

But what is reality, and what are imaginings? The beauty of McGrath's writing is the ability to produces images of abject horror in plain, unfussy language. Indeed, some images become all the more horrible simply because the reader can easily imagine the measured tones of Cleave as he tells us in detail of the psychiatric breakdown of the people involved. The voice of Cleave is sane, but is the character?

This is a book of light and dark. Of summer and winter. Night and day. There are shadows and ghosts and monsters, all of them lurking in the most respectable of people. Asylum is all of those review cliches: compelling, unputdownable, relentless. But, I mean it, it really is.

And the last line. *shudder*
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on 2 February 2001
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.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 24 October 2005
once or twice in a year you come across a book that you really can't put down. It is a cliche but sometimes it can prove more than true. Asylum is one of these books - I read it between everything I did during a day and just found it impossible to put down. McGrath is a superb writer and this story of Stella and her descent into (or escape from) an unreal life is charted beautifully. The inevitable tragedies, though seen from the beginning, are still an emotional shock. I loved the fact that the narrator is another of the doctors at the asylum, which is not made immediately clear who, but you know Stella's fate from the get go. You feel as if you are standing alongside the narrator, Peter, and both of you slowly watch this beautiful woman be crippled by desire. This really is a fantastic read and though the first of McGrath's novels I have read, I assure you it won't be the last. This novel will stay with me for a long time - easily one of the best 10 novels I have ever read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 28 March 2009
This is a truly wonderful and memorable book. It is challenging, yet highly engaging. As a psychologist, I found his insight into the human psyche and the fallability of those who are presumed to have privileged insight into what constitutes sanity and instanity extremely impressive The best book I have read for a year or two.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I bought this book because I knew McGrath when he was about 10 years old. I was a couple of years older and we attended the same school for a while in the late 50s, the time when the novel was set. His father at the time was the medical superintendant of Broadmoor Hospital. The boy Charlie in the novel from the physical description was clearly McGrath himself, but the strangest part for me was that he names the medical supintendant in the novel Straffen. Anyone who lived near Broadmoor in the 50s knew that name ony too well as an inmate who had strangled two little girls in Bath and then escaped from Broadmoor to kill another little girl who was out riding her bicycle in a nearby village.
Why give the character in your book who was portrayed as having the same job as you father the name of a notorious murderer and escapee from the same institution?
All the same an excellent read!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 July 2012
Now I don't know much about McGrath's work but this description from Penguin leads me to believe that the `unreliable narrator' is a preferred tool of his and it definitely works in this context with our narrator being Dr Cleave, another psychiatrist, seemingly removed for the actual events going on and a lot of the novel is made up of things that Stella told him, therefore completely unreliable!

It was a funny angle to read from if I'm honest, as from the blurb I was expecting to be reading from the point of view of the husband Max or from a completely omniscient narrative perspective but this wasn't the case. I'm not sure I understand exactly why McGrath chose to use Cleave as his narrator, aside from the fact that he's a medical superintendant and therefore suitably qualified to discuss both Edgar and Stella's mental states.

I definitely found this novel thought-provoking as I find its subject matter thought provoking but I felt nothing for any of the characters. I don't know if it was intentional but there wasn't a single character drawn with any empathy, even Stella and Max's young son Charlie appears neutrally. I'm used to finding at least one character I can get involved in but this novel seemed to focus more on story than characterisation and it was fairly fast-paced which I enjoyed.

Would I recommend it? If you're interested in the history of mental health treatment/psychiatry and such like - Yes.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
In the summer of 1959, Dr Max Raphael is appointed deputy superintendent of a remote English hospital for the criminally insane. Max is accompanied by his wife Stella and their son Charlie. Stella befriends a patient, Edgar Stark, who is working on the rebuilding of a conservatory. Even the knowledge that Edgar has been confined to the hospital for the brutal murder and disfigurement of his wife does not deter Stella from becoming involved with Edgar. Their obsessive and destructive love destroys a number of lives.

The narrator, Dr Peter Cleave, increasingly becomes involved in the story. He brings a curious mix of hubris and naivety to the events as he recounts them. His belief that he can save Stella can only be sustained by ignoring reality. And ultimately the asylum is no place of safety at all - except, perhaps, for Dr Cleave himself. As a prison, it has clearly failed.

I am ambivalent about this novel. I am pleased that the narrator was neither Stella nor Edgar, thereby providing some distance from their different forms of madness. I am disquieted by the actions of Stella, and of Dr Cleave. I was surprised to realise, at the end of the novel, that the action had taken place in a period of just over 12 months. This is not a light read, and while I found the content unsettling, the writing is superb.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 16 August 2005
Max Raphael becomes the deputy superintendent of a provincial hospital for the criminally insane in 1959. He has been appointed by superintendent Jack Straffen and is going to work together with psychiatrists John Archer and Peter Cleave, the latter being the narrator of the ensuing events. Max is accompanied by his wife Stella and his son Charlie.
But soon Stella comes to despise the claustrophobic atmosphere of the mental institution and her husband Max - it was a cold and white marriage - who has a weak sexual drive and lacks the moral and physical imagination to continue to find Stella attractive and who channels his libido into his work.
It is therefore understandable that after meeting one of Peter's patients, a sculptor called Edgar Stark, she feel irresistibly attracted by his strong manliness.
But Edgar is a delusional patient who killed his wife Ruth, then cut her head and mutilated her. This was the result of an unconscious process and the product of the delusional structure of his mind to suppose his wife's infidelity. Edgar structured his sculpting around Ruth until the idealisation of her person collapsed and he developed morbid delusions about her infidelity.
One day Edgar manages to steal some of Max's clothes and absconds to London. When Peter notices that Stella has secretly visited Edgar several times in London, he tries to warn her about the dangers such a situation is bound to present, but to no avail. Stella decides to join Edgar and flees her family thus placing her life into the hands of a dangerous criminal.
The narrative structure of the novel is particularly original since it combines both events which unfold chronologically and a retrospective account or confession to Peter of Stella's relationship with Edgar. The narrative is superb and unruffled and the slowly shocking descent into the tormented depths of madness is a brilliant achievement. Few authors have shown with such elegance and restraint the extremes of mental derangement.
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