Book Review – The Asylum by Karen Coles

The Asylum is published today, but I was lucky enough to read it several weeks ago. It hooked me from beginning to end.

The author, Karen Coles, really has achieved something extraordinary here. Her main protagonist, Maud, is incarcerated in an asylum and put through all sorts of gruelling ‘treatments’ including being force-fed and not being allowed outside. An institution that is supposed to treat mental illness ends up exacerbating it – and Maud becomes prone to violence, slipping between fantasy and reality.

It is not easy to depict madness without alienating the reader, but Coles navigates this brilliantly – not once did I feel confused by what was going on inside Maud’s head yet the questions over what exactly had happened to this young woman kept on mounting.

Enter one pioneering Doctor Dimmond who is carrying out research into the new treatment of hypnosis. At every turn his superior, the malevolent Womack (with his waxed moustache), tries to thwart the treatment, but on Dimmond presses. We also slip back in time to atmospheric scenes, heavy with tension, where we get to experience just who Maud was before she became a patient.

It is not all doom and gloom though – in the present, Maud can be funny and spirited, while in the past we learn that she was once a woman who dared to be different. If this was her downfall in this patriarchal society then, could it also be her salvation? A haunting heart-breaker of a novel — can someone turn it into a Netflix series please?

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