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.