The Asylum
John Harwood
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Buy *The Asylum* by John Harwoodonline

The Asylum
John Harwood
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
272 pages
May 2013
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Asylum.

Given its solid grounding in nineteenth-century Victorianism, it’s not surprising that Harwood’s gothic tale of mistaken identity centers on the whiles of men who weep and bemoan the dangers threatening virtuous ladies such as Georgina Ferrars. Georgina has found herself confined to sinister Tregannon House, a crumbling asylum deep in Bodmin Moor, Cornwall. The House has accrued its reputation down the years thanks to its eccentric inhabitants and its unique pastoral location.

Tregannon gradually becomes a strong presence within Hardwood’s story, almost a separate character. A rather enlightened institution dedicated to the comfort of the patients, its spooky setting amid overgrown grounds and the surrounding sprawl of woodlands deepens Georgina’s confusion when she wakes in its infirmary. Presided over by the superintendent and chief medical officer, the piercing-eyed Maynard Straker, Georgina learns that she has been calling herself Lucy Ashton and arrived at Tregannon without notice.

Apparently, Lucy suffered a seizure almost certainly brought upon by prolonged and violent mental agitation. Straker refers to a disturbance of the mind and extreme fatigue. Placed into the hands of his assistant, Mr. Frederic Mordaunt, Georgina realizes that much seems undeniable and utterly incomprehensible. There has been a terrible mistake: she is supposed to be living in London’s Gresham’s Yard with her kindly uncle Josiah Radford, not recuperating in a private asylum on Cornwall.

Overtaken by a sense of absolute unreality, Georgina can summon only blurred images of herself in her uncle’s house. In panic, she refers to her diary and to the recollections of her mother, who moved to a cottage on the cliffs on the Isle of Wight to live with Georgina’s dear great aunt. Amid these ghostly memories, Georgina’s thoughts spiral into a fog of confusion, causing her to wonder at the whereabouts of her writing case and the beloved dragonfly brooch that her mother left her.

Writing in a distinctly Victorian tone, Hardwood’s narrative binds and entangles us in the social and sexual mores of the nineteenth century. The mystery unfolds from two vantage points, each new clue eliciting thousands of questions: Georgina’s changing perceptions of Tregannon, and a series of letters from Rosina Wentworth talking of her romance with dashing young Felix Mordaunt, who seeks to inherit the family fortune. While Georgina finds herself drawn to Frederic, finding solace in probing secrets from his past, Rosina--a constant victim of men--can scarcely imagine what it must be like for a spirited young woman to be so closely guarded.

While Rosina’s mysterious fate lies at the heart of the mystery, Harwood’s secondary characters such as malignant Hodges, Tregannon’s madhouse attendant, compound the growing sense of unease. From Georgina, we feel the pain of a girl who must solve the riddle of her identity after she attempts to bribe Hodges to escape. In slender, emaciated, melancholic Frederic, we sense the slowly dawning amazement of an expanded horizon that feels achievable when Georgina finally becomes familiar with a type of life and love she never believed existed.

There’s an age-old family curse, a grey-faced man who must keep Rosina’s dreaded secret, the machinations of Dr. Straker, and Felix Mordaunt, who may or may not be an insouciant rogue who breaks hearts as surely as he finds young girls to idolize him. Hardwood surreptitiously moves us through the laudanum-laced hallways of Tregannon, creating a gothic portrait of two women with two different voices, each touched and numbed by the rippling effects of Victorian circumstance.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2013

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