Since the publication of The House of Gentle Men, author Kathy Hepinstall has been on my radar, a writer with a knack for capturing the intimate moments of her characters, adding depth and texture to her novels. Set in the Civil War, Blue Asylum is literally an island to itself. Plantation wife Iris Dunleavy, judged insane by the court and her wealthy husband, is sent to Sanibel Island until she is restored to her proper state and can resume her wifely duties. A bright, educated woman, Iris has underestimated her right to express her views or challenge her husband’s authority. Her flight to freedom with the plantation slaves triggers their wholesale massacre and her detention with the other mental patients constrained to the island.
Run by the iron-willed Dr. Henry Cowell, the asylum is structured on a strict regimen of rules and one-on-one therapy with the highly-regarded physician, who determines the manner of their treatment for their various disorders. When not being tortured by the nonsensical rules of a jealous matron, Iris spends her time trying to convince Dr. Cowell that she isn’t crazy, a declaration that falls on deaf ears. Cowell is a strong believer in the link between female hysteria and insanity, convinced that if a woman is restored to her proper humors, she can function in a paternal society quite well. While Cowell bristles at Mrs. Dunleavy’s resistance, he becomes secretly obsessed with her cool beauty and determination not to cooperate with him.
Cowell’s son Wendell, a half-mad boy of twelve, wanders the island freely, unable to forget the red-haired beauty who drowned herself in the sea. When Wendell appears at the bars of Iris’s room to initiate conversation, it occurs to her that the boy may well be the key to escape. But escape becomes more problematic as Iris develops an attraction to a psychologically tortured Confederate soldier undone by what he has witnessed in war. Ambrose Weller’s fragile emotional state provokes Iris into including him in her escape plan, sure that Ambrose will improve in time with her healing ministrations.
As counter-forces, Dunleavy and Cowell are well-matched adversaries, she unwilling to submit to his control, he immersed in his work to avoid the unhappiness of a mismatched marriage and a strange son with whom he can barely communicate. Far from the war, its conflicts are still felt on the island, in the unpredictability of supplies but more clearly through Weller’s episodes, when loud noises throw him back into the nightmare of the battlefield and a memory he cannot bear to relive.
Vivid colors and eloquent phrases saturate the novel: the constant call of birds, a sweet first kiss between Ambrose and Iris that “spilled across her plans like the contents of an inkwell,” Wendell’s severed fingers staining the water bright red, and Cowell’s black rage when his patients escape. Sometimes hopeful and at others tragic, Hepinstall captures time and place in a tale brought to life from the ashes of the past, where a wife is only a chattel and freedom is forfeit in an act of rebellion, where a doctor chokes on his own hubris and the ocean waves ebb and flow with time.