The Asylum by John Harwood

The Asylum Imagine waking up one day to find yourself in an asylum, with no memory of how you came to be there. You know your own name – Georgina Ferrars – but the doctor tells you that you had admitted yourself as a voluntary patient the day before under the name Lucy Ashton. The clothes and belongings you’ve brought with you, marked with the initials LA, seem to confirm this, but you’re sure that’s not who you are. Sending a telegram to your uncle, a London bookseller, you wait for him to prove your identity, but when the reply comes it isn’t what you’d hoped for at all. Apparently Georgina Ferrars is safe and well at home…which means you must be an imposter.

This is the nightmare scenario in which a lonely young woman finds herself in this atmospheric gothic tale of betrayal and deceit, secrets, insanity and identity. To describe the plot in any more detail would risk giving too much away, so I won’t try – I think it’s best if you begin this novel knowing no more than I’ve already told you above as part of the fun is in wondering what’s going on and coming up with theories of your own. And I certainly came up with plenty of theories…and had to keep changing and revising them as new clues and revelations came to light!

As I read The Asylum I felt as confused and bewildered as our narrator did. Was she really Georgina Ferrars, as she claimed to be? I thought so at first – I liked her and wanted to believe her – and I was convinced she must be the victim of a conspiracy. But who exactly was involved in the conspiracy? The doctor? The uncle? The fake Georgina? After a while, though, I began to have doubts. Was the narrator herself the fake after all? I couldn’t believe she was telling lies, so did that mean she was deluded or just suffering from a total loss of memory? There were so many questions to ask and so many possible answers.

The story is set in the 1880s and written in the style of a Victorian sensation novel. Like Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and other books of that era, parts of the story are told in the form of journal entries and letters. These help to fill in some gaps in our knowledge so that we can start to understand what is happening to Georgina. There were other aspects of the novel that reminded me of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and one of the letter writers finds herself in a situation similar to the heroine of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, but there were enough original ideas here to make this an intriguing and absorbing story in its own right.

Most of the action takes place within the confines of Tregannon House (the private asylum on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, in which Georgina becomes trapped) and the atmosphere Harwood creates is wonderfully claustrophobic and eerie. I really sympathised with Georgina’s situation and shared her terror and bewilderment. My only criticism of the book is that the ending – in particular the way in which one of the villains of the story is eventually dealt with – felt a bit too melodramatic in comparison to the rest of the book.

This is the third John Harwood novel I’ve read and while I think the first, The Ghost Writer, is still my favourite, I enjoyed this one more than the second, The Séance. They’re all great, though, and if you like this sort of book you can’t go wrong with any of them!

The Seance by John Harwood

When Constance Langton’s little sister Alma dies, she takes her grieving mother to a séance. She has her doubts as to whether it’s really possible to summon spirits, but she hopes it might offer her mother some comfort. Unfortunately though, Constance’s decision has tragic consequences that she couldn’t have foreseen. Alone in the world, Constance is contacted by solicitor John Montague and learns of an inheritance connecting her with Wraxford Hall, a crumbling manor house surrounded by gloomy woods. The dark secrets of the Hall’s sinister past are revealed to the reader through the narratives of Constance, Montague and another young woman, Eleanor Unwin, whose fate also becomes linked with the house. It’s not surprising that Constance is advised to “sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt if you will; but never live there…”

The Séance is a wonderfully atmospheric gothic mystery set in Victorian England. The book was published in 2008 but has everything you’d expect to find in a Victorian ghost story or sensation novel: a derelict mansion said to be haunted, bad weather (complete with thick fog, heavy rain, howling winds and dramatic thunderstorms), wills and inheritances, dangerous scientific experiments, mesmerism, spiritualism, mysterious disappearances, ghostly apparitions and family secrets. There’s even a haunted suit of armour! The story is told in the form of the various characters’ narratives, letters and journal entries – a style reminiscent of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, for example. I would be very surprised if Collins is not one of John Harwood’s influences, but there are shades of other Victorian gothic/sensation fiction writers too. Harwood’s writing is not as flowery and descriptive as a typical Victorian author but at the same time he perfectly captures the mood and tone of a piece of 19th century writing.

The plot does start to become very complicated – much more complicated than it needed to be, in my opinion – but it does keep the reader guessing and wondering what the next plot twist will be. The villain was very easy to identify though! The changing viewpoints were handled well, and the author chose the right points to end one character’s narrative and move onto the next – although there was such a long gap between Constance’s two narratives that by the time I came to the second one I’d almost forgotten about her. This made Constance feel slightly disconnected from the other two narrators and she didn’t seem such a vital part of the novel as Montague and Eleanor. I also thought the voices of the different narrators could have been more distinctive (this is an area where Wilkie Collins really excels but where so many other authors seem to have difficulties). But although the characters could have been stronger, the real heart of the novel is the house, Wraxford Hall, which is almost a character in itself.

About thirty yards from the house I stumbled over the remnant of a low stone wall, where I settled myself with my tablet and pencils. The air was still and cold; somewhere in the distance a fox barked, but no answering cry arose from the blackness opposite. Minute by minute, the clearing brightened; the Hall seemed to be inching its way upward out of darkness. As the moon rose higher, the proportions of the house appeared to alter until it loomed above me like a precipice. I reached down for my tablet and, as I straightened, saw a light spring up in the window immediately above the main entrance

The Séance is the second book I’ve read by John Harwood; the first was The Ghost Writer, which I read almost exactly a year ago. Of the two, I enjoyed The Ghost Writer more (I loved the ghost stories in that one) but both are very creepy, very gothic and perfect books to read at this time of year.

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Gerard Freeman has grown up in Mawson, Australia, listening to his mother’s tales of her own childhood at Staplefield, a country estate in England. However, when she finds him going through her private papers one day she is furious and from that moment she refuses to say any more about her past.

Gerard continues to investigate his mother’s background and is intrigued when he discovers some ghost stories written by his great-grandmother, Viola Hatherley. Unable to talk to his mother about his discoveries, the only person Gerard can confide in is his English penpal, Alice Jessel. It’s only as Gerard grows older and uncovers more of his family history that he begins to understand the full significance of Viola’s stories and how they relate to his own life.

The Ghost Writer was published in 2004 and seems to have been very popular at the time of its publication, yet I somehow hadn’t even heard of it until I picked it up in the library a couple of weeks ago and thought it sounded perfect for the R.I.P. challenge and for this time of year. And it was a perfect choice – I was very impressed by this book. The closest comparison I can make is to Possession by A.S. Byatt. Both books are very well written and have similar structures, with different sections written in different styles and with letters and stories woven into the plot. I did find this an easier and more entertaining read than Possession, though, and at times it also reminded me of The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.

Viola Hatherley’s ghost stories were my favourite parts of the novel. They were very creepy and I could really believe they’d been written during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I loved the way the ghost stories were connected to Gerard’s own story and yet they would have been good enough to stand alone as a separate short story collection too. Often when I read a book containing stories-within-stories I find myself becoming impatient and wanting to get back to the main plot, but not this time! There were four of Viola’s stories included in the book (one, The Revenant, is much longer than the other three and almost a novella). The highlight for me was The Gift of Flight, with its descriptions of a sinister doll-like child and a mysterious fog that fills the reading room at the British Museum.

Looking through some other reviews of this book, I’ve noticed that a lot of readers felt let down by the ending. I don’t usually mind being left to make up my own mind at the end of a book, but I can definitely understand why people would be disappointed by the way this one ended. It was very ambiguous and left so much open to interpretation. Despite the ending though, there were so many other things to love about this book: the elegant writing, the intricate plot, the clever structure, the gothic atmosphere, the eerie, unsettling mood and most of all, those excellent Victorian-style ghost stories!