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Book review: The Asylum, By John Harwood


“I am Miss Georgina Ferrars  of Gresham’s Yard, London. I am. I swear that I am. And I shall prove it.”

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With John Harwood’s beguiling pastiche The Asylum, we’re once again in a contemporary version of the Victorian Gothic mystery, with a lineage that stretches back to Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and beyond. Though it’s not a comfortable place for the beleaguered heroine, readers are guaranteed a thoroughly diverting time in Harwood’s not-to-be-trusted hands.

A young woman wakes up to find herself in an unfamiliar bed with coarse sheets, in a room with sickly green walls and light feebly filtering through a metal grille. A middle-aged man with an air of authority announces himself as Dr Maynard Straker: “Have no fear, Miss Ashton, I am entirely at your service.” Despite the young woman’s distress and confusion, she is sure of two things: Ashton is not her name, and she does not belong in the asylum.

When she asks the doctor to send a telegram to her uncle in London, to verify her identity, the reply is devastating – the real Georgina Ferrars is safe at home. What follows is a richly textured, sometimes overcooked, but masterfully constructed, narrative in which the reader is placed at the heart of Georgina’s nightmare, with her own memory the clue to unravelling a skein of deceit and venality.

As in Harwood’s The Seance,  the creaking apparatus of the Victorian novel of suspense is given an energetic shaking-up. There is plenty of life in the old genre yet, provided a contemporary author can utilise all the requisite elements without self-consciously guying such things (always the kiss of death).

Today’s dabbler in Victorian mystery has a problem to overcome that was less onerous for the likes of Collins. The modern reader will have mental feelers extended for deception from the first line – we are perhaps not quite as ready to be led up the garden path as the Victorians. But the fact that Harwood trots us up and down that path in a dizzying dance – and that we love every minute of it – proves his casual command of this shamelessly enjoyable idiom.

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