Review: Blue Asylum

A thank you to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (and Thomas Allen, Ltd) for rewarding us with the ability to read Blue Asylum before it was released.

Amid the mayhem of the Civil War, Virginia plantation wife Iris Dunleavy is put on trial and convicted of madness. It is the only reasonable explanation the court can see for her willful behavior, so she is sent away to Sanibel Asylum to be restored to a good, compliant woman.

Iris is a woman sent away to the insane aslyum for defying her husband. A man she knows is a cruel plantation owner and whom she despises. The beginning of the story is where Iris has already been tried and sentenced to be detained at the asylum, she is taking the boat to the island where the asylum is housed. Iris is desperate to have everyone understand the mistake that was made and that she is of sound mind, her madness being that she challenged and defied her husband.

There has been a mistake. I do not belong here. I am simply here for the act of defying my husband, who is a man of most indecent character.

I am not a lunatic. I am the victim of a terrible campaign of outright slander by own husband.

It is always amazing to read how a man’s opinion carried so much weight at that time and that no matter how calmly you presented yourself, women were never believed. What a convenient way to cast aside an unwanted wife simply by claiming her insane. Any potential nostalgia for this bygone era should be swiftly wiped away! There is also great insight about the laudanum laced patients and the horrible “water treatment” that was used on women to make them docile and acquiescent again.

You’ve embarrassed your husband. Humiliated him, here in such a pressing time, when the war is taking such a toll.

At Sanibel, Iris meets a woman that swallows small objects, and whom becomes one of her closest friends, a man that believes his feet are too heavy and a recovering solider suffering from intense shock, dreaming of the colour blue to help calm him and whose story also unfolds in time. And there is Wendell, the son of the good doctor Cowell, who lives full time on the island. Wendell has no children his age there and is surrounded by madness. He quite fears he himself is insane, for he has no one to confide in about what he sees from the patients, and of the changes in his body or his feelings. Wendell becomes something of a watchkeeper over Iris. He is fascinated by her and wishes to keep her safe. For Iris, Wendell becomes her confidante and her only and best way to escape from the island.

Iris’ past unfolds amid the blossoming friendship between herself and Wendell. The story switches from the present at the asylum, and slowly unfolds with the past story as to how Iris really came to be there. Her afternoon chats with Wendell expose the tryanny of her husband and his treatment of the slaves there. She tells Wendell with care and patience, how she came to help free and escape with the slaves from her husband’s plantation. Through these stories Iris also provides parallells for Wendell to think about, how his father is running his own slave plantation in a way, and the tyranny of the asylum, etc.

She is also “getting into” Dr. Cowell’s head as he fights to justify her insanity but also his growing infatuation with her. Iris falls in love with Ambrose, the recovering soldier and these feelings are impeding her ability to escape.

This was her true suitor, not the plantation owner but the madman, pure of heart and strong and kind. The one who made her feel completely a woman and not an ounce a prisoner or a patient or a lunatic.

This was a really good story. You may find that it starts out perhaps just a tad slow, but it does build all along the way and the slow unveiling of Iris’ story and of the stories of the various characters is worth the wait. The tension and anticipation builds to a solid ending. I’ve waffled between the 3.5 and 4 star rating. So let’s settle with a 3.75. 🙂 It is a worthy read!

Parts of this novel did remind me of Dracula in Love, by Karen Essex, where Mina Harker is sent to an asylum, again because of her husband, and his sole declaration that she is insane. (I do encourage you to pick up Dracula in Love- I absolutely loved it, perhaps the only book with a vampire in it that I will ever read.)

This is Nellie Bly being examined and determined to be mentally insane. Nellie Bly was a journalist who went undercover to expose the travesty in the Blackwell Insane Asylum. The link will take you to the full story as written by Bly.

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