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on 8 January 2016
This is one of those rare novels that is an absolute treat to encounter.

The action takes place in a Broadmoor-type hospital at the end of the 1950's - and perhaps it can be forgotten just how narrow and repressive lfe in 50's Britain could be. Stella Raphael is stultified in a white marriage to her rather stodgy psychiatrist husband and yearns for true passion - and finds it.

She finds it in a patient, Edgar Stark,and on realising she has been rumbled by the ever-watchful eye of the psychiatic Powers that Be at the hospital, runs away to London, in order to enjoy a wilder and freer existence as the lover of a Great Artist.

The trouble is, as the narrator Peter Cleave drily reminds us, this is an Artist who has already mutilated and removed the eyes of his unfortunate wife - and who could be more than capable of doing so again.

Luckily he is caught before he can do that. Unluckily, Stella Raphael returns home, to face massive disapproval for her unconsidered actions alongside a discredited husband. The family is asked to leave the hospital.

As events take further tragic turns, the narrator Peter Cleave steps in and now, both Stella and Stark are in his safekeeping.

Asylum is described as a gothic, though it is free of either archaic language or haunted castles. Perhaps Mc Grath has realised in this novel that many aspects of real life are already quite 'gothic' in real life too: the Haunted castle becomes a modern mental hospital, the Wandering Jew the Struggling Artist and so forth. There is also the unreliable narrator and here, let it just be said that Peter Cleave's measured and detached scholarly interest in sexual obsession hides rather more self-centred agendas.

It should be said that those looking for Hanibal Lecter-type thrills would be disappointed with this novel: Asylum does very nicely without crudely-delivered schlock on each and every page.

What Asylum does deliver is a sense of the horror and depression of many individual lives. Raphael's fate did seem almost sealed at the very beginning of the story - this tale does not have a happy ending.

It is certainly one of Patrick Mc Grath's finest novels.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 February 2015
I have a distinct impression of the characters and landscapes in this novel, published in 1996, being seen through a sepia filter. The author, b. 1950, creates a stultifying environment that extends beyond the two mental hospitals and into the east end of London. Reading the book makes one want to open a window to breath fresh air, albeit perhaps not that of North Wales.

The book, set in 1959, is narrated by Peter Cleave, a psychiatrist at a hospital for the criminally insane outside London [`Stella Raphael's story is one of the saddest I know' he states on the first page]. The story centres on Stella, the bored wife of the deputy-superintendent and forensic psychiatrist, Max Raphael, who is attracted to one of the inmates, sculptor Edgar Stark who has decapitated and enucleated [I didn't either] his wife believing that she was serially unfaithful. Stella and Edgar meet through her young son, Charlie, a rather sad and peripheral figure and soon they are engaged in a passionate affair.

Cleave's narrative is clinical and dry in the extreme, although his use of the possessive adjective [`my Edgar'] is very revealing, and he dos not hesitate to fill in details about which he uncertain. With Stella's assistance, Edgar absconds to London where, after a period, she visits him and their affair continues, assisted by a painter and judge's son, Nick - a particularly unconvincing figure.

Eventually Stella's affair is uncovered and Cleave describes the crumbling of her marriage, Max's transfer to a mental institution at Cledwyn, deep in rural North Wales and the consequences for the Raphael family, Edgar and Cleave. None of these characters are likeable and I would certainly not want to be treated by any of the doctors who seem to view their patients merely as specimens. However, for any book to succeed it must engage the reader through its plot, characters or descriptions.

Here the plot seemed less than credible - whilst media reporting of an escaped `lunatic' in the early 1960s was no doubt less than today, it seems unlikely that it could be so low-key and that no official investigation into the circumstances of the escape was apparently launched. I do not demand likeable characters but they should interest the reader and these sadly do not; there is only so much unrestrained bonking, drinking and smoking that I can take. The narrative tone of Dr Cleave is tedious and creates a barrier to the reader's emotional engagement, whilst overall there is no very obvious sense of period in the descriptive writing.

Stella longs for the city life and so her reaction to finding herself in North Wales, amongst the `suspicious, watchful men, dour and sly', the `hard-worked and bitter' women [her landlord's wife, Mair Williams, had eyes that `spoke only of work and disappointment and bitterness and sterility']. Charlie, unsurprisingly, finds his new schoolmates `rough and unfriendly'. The Williams' dog `leapt at them in a fury, and but for the chain would clearly have torn their throats out'. When the teacher, Hugh Griffiths, tries to talk with Stella about why Charlie is so unhappy, he has a `weedly Welsh voice' she replies `I don't have time'.

One understands that it is Stella's mental and emotional state that is creating this overall impression but a few contrasts [perhaps a whistling Dai Morgan the Post?] might have made the point more even better. No wonder Max voices the opinion that `depressive illness is significantly more prevalent in this part of Wales than elsewhere in Europe. Except Scandinavia of course.' Or did he make this up?

Love, obsession, mental illness and the many-layered characteristics of human nature are the key themes of this novel in which the unreliability of mental illness and depression is allied to the inherent unreliability of Cleave's narration.

In the hands of a more sensitive writer and/or with greater focus on plot and character, this might have been a really compelling novel with distinctly Gothic elements [as befits its title]. As it stands, it is a rather gloomy and monotonous read, all the more surprising given that McGrath's father was Medical Superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital and the author grew up in its vicinity. 6/10.
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on 9 August 2017
Mr. McGrath is the master of psychological disorders in contemporary fiction, and in this tource de force named 'Asylum' he creates, perhaps, his best story of disturbed characters. His unreliable narrator, Dr.Cleave is a psychiatrist whose telling of the affair between his patient Edgar Stark and his friend Stella Raphael emphasises their sexual obsession, madness and transgressions, though we never get to know Stark and Raphael's own version of the events.
The novel, set in the 1950s England, portrays magnificiently the society of the time. Its tragic ending once it is discovered Stella's inability to be a responsible mother since she lets her only child drown and commits suicide at the asylum her husband once worked at, leaves the reader wanting more, wanting to know what happens with the characters who don't die, and missing the ones who disappear. It is an excellent read.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 May 2010
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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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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on 10 March 2012
I can not recall now when I first read this book, but I know I shall read it again and again. As the men around her consume Stella so the book consumes your thoughts.It is hard to reconcile your idea of good and bad to what occurs as the story develops, an even now I would be hard pressed to do so. That is why I love this book so much, it satisfies but still leaves us the puzzle that queries or own beliefs....brilliant.
Set at an asylum in the 1950's, whose atmosphere is brilliantly evoked ( it is interesting to note that McGraths father worked in such an asylumas did my grandfather) there is a tangible authenticity to the 'little empire' mentality of the staff who acted as apparently benign dictators.
Stella, the unfortunate focus of our interest, a bored and frustrated wife of the assistant superintendant embarks on an intense affair with a 'dangerous' inmate. However we later discover that he is not the person who will ultimately manipulate her beyond bearing....the climax is unexpected, disturbing and tragic.
Read this, to say more would spoil your enjoyment.
Suffice to say, love ( what ever that is!) has a voracious appetite!
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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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on 31 July 2009
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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on 6 January 2009
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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on 28 March 2007
This is a gothic love story, set in a mental asylum, that at first look I thought was going to be too depressing to read. How wrong I was. McGrath really drew me in with his dark, but captivating writing style. From the beginning it's clear that this story is going to end tragically, but the writing is pacey enough to keep the reader hooked.

The book is about Stella who lives with her psychiatrist husband Max and a young son called Charlie, in the grounds of a high-security mental hospital. She is very unhappy with her life and embarks on a romance with Edgar; one of the inmates who she later discovers murdered his wife and mutilated her body whilst in a jealous rage. Nevertheless, she becomes obsessed by Edgar, and starts on a course of actions that ultimately lead to a harrowing tragedy.

This novel shows the darker side of love and the extremes of behaviour that can arise from it. A captivating read that was a true page-turner for me.
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