Picks and Pans Review: Asylum
McGrath, a specialist in neo-Gothic horror, has written a terrifying novel—the equivalent of a dental drill's dreadful whirr, which, thanks to anesthesia, is more unsettling than the drilling itself. Though this is a tale of madness and violent death, desperate love, lust and hatred, these passionate extremes come to us as reverb, the echo of something hideously frightening and just out of sight.
Stella Raphael, the bright, beautiful and bored wife of a forensic psychiatrist at a maximum-security mental hospital near London, encounters Edgar Stark, a patient incarcerated for the brutal murder of his wife (her head was chopped off, her eyes gouged out). Edgar, a sculptor before he became a jealous murderer, is a brooding hunk of sex appeal, a man Stella, despite her safe and comfortable life with her husband and 10-year-old son, simply can't resist.
Beautifully written, morally complex, utterly convincing (McGrath's father was a medical superintendent at a mental hospital near London), Asylum offers an array of brainy pleasures in addition to the thrill of creeping menace: a clinical look at criminal psychiatry, a studio tour of the artistic temperament and a grown-up perspective on why a woman might prefer to be a lover than a wife or a mother. (Random House, $22)