Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Asylum by John Harwood: review

John Harwood's previous two novels, The Ghost Writer and The Seance, were superb Victorian-set ghost stories, carefully wrought and with a layer of ironic detachment that allowed us both to enjoy them as straightforward thrillers, and to admire the devices that he used to maintain his effects. The Asylum, though not based in the supernatural, is just as good, and deals once more with a woman in seemingly desperate circumstances, fighting for her very life. Georgina Ferrars wakes up one day in an asylum, only to be told that she is not who she thinks she is at all. Harwood cleverly manipulates diary entries, letters, and Georgina's own narrative, to create a sense of growing menace which plays with notions of identity as well as containing all the classic Gothic tropes: madness, illicit romance, doppelgangers, deranged scientists and pathetic fallacies. Harwood has a beautiful, convincing style (with the occasional note of levity: one of the characters likes nothing better than striding around pretending to be Byron). Whilst the ending plays a little too closely into the hands of cliche, in the "villain-tells-all" sense, it is surprising enough, and gripping enough, not to matter. Harwood, an Australian writer, has now produced three of these fantastically controlled novels of suspense: his reputation deserves to be larger. 

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