Blue Asylum has the clarity of perfectly clean water, pale blue and clear to the sandy bottom, so empty that you can see the markings on the shells there. The water off Florida’s Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico, setting for the lunatic asylum that swallows Iris Dunleavy just after the Civil War, used to be that blue and translucent. The beaches were thick with prized shells and sea turtles covered the sand above the tideline with their nests each summer and their hatchlings in the height of hurricane season. I don’t know if there was ever a mental hospital on the island, back in the late 1800s, but Blue Asylum is a credible approximation of what one would have been.
Iris is delivered to the private human warehouse by cattle boat after her plantation owner husband has her declared insane and committed. Her crime is to have been too dreamy a girl, marrying a brute who considered his slaves to be disposable property, refusing to celebrate the bloody whippings for minor, or imagined, infractions, plotting a disastrous escape and insisting on her own autonomy, integrity and sanity in a sadistic patriarchal society.
The asylum is full of rich characters—the woman who believes her adored husband of forty years is still alive and dances with her on the beach, the seemingly sane woman who swallows things that are not meant to be swallowed, the Confederate soldier who slips into a screaming frenzy at any trigger for the nightmares that grip his memory and his mind. The psychiatrist is as obstinate and obtuse as the sentencing judge—Iris must be mad, else why would she be in his establishment? The matron is a malicious beast who sets Iris up for the horrifying water cure, a torture the doctor has developed to treat resistant cases.
Wendell, the shrink’s thirteen-year-old son, is going mad himself, isolated on the mosquito- and alligator-infested barrier island. He harbors terrible guilt and crushing grief for the suicide of a girl he befriended before Iris arrived. Wendell is a great character—the most empathetic and evolved person in the story. He worries about Iris as she falls in love with a dangerous patient.
What happens when truth is corrosive enough to eat through the lies wrecks the comfortable assumptions that order this mad world. The personal horrors that the main players harbor are revealed slowly but evidence of them is there from the first. Terrific book but hard to read because it made me so furious at the way human connection and the intrinsic worth of women, children, slaves and the spiritually wounded were casually and relentlessly discounted.
Confronting reality comes at a cost. People do change in the course of the novel and some are lost. That kid Wendell is a prize. Good read, if at times blood-pressure-raising. Blue Asylum is a story well-told.
Blue Asylum Kathy Hepinstall | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012