rating: 5 of 5 stars
My review from Powell’s Books:
“It’s easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out,” New York World reporter Nellie Bly wrote in her “Ten Days in a Mad House” expose about the poor conditions and mistreatment of patients at Blackwell’s Island asylum in New York in 1887. Deplorable by today’s standards, the approach to mental health then wasn’t far removed from the days when professionals considered the insane to be those suffering God’s punishment or the Devil’s possession.
The fictional Magdalene Ladies Lunatic Asylum in Rosemary Poole-Carter’s darkly beautiful novel fits perfectly into a time period when the treatment of female mentally ill patients was likely to be neither moral nor effective. Confinement was often a matter of convenience for the families of women viewed as domestic failures who were best kept out of sight and out of mind.
When young Civil War surgeon Dr. Robert Mallory arrives at the Louisiana institution for employment as general practitioner after the war, he soon sees that God and the world have forgotten the women of Magdalene, and the only devils on the premises are the asylum’s owner Dr. Kingston, his former assistant Dr. Hardy, and their dictatorial matron.
When Robert questions Kingston about the inhumane treatment of the women housed in the former plantation mansion, Kingston discounts Robert’s competence to judge what is right and proper in the realm of mental illness. Later, Robert will ask why no women are ever cured and allowed to leave the facility. Cures? There are no cures, only what Kingston describes without noticeable guile as “sanctuary.”
In Poole-Carter’s haunting, yet gritty prose, Magdalene floats almost dreamlike within a misshapen world of malaise and mist that will ultimately claim all who remain there–and for a high price. Robert, like the women, arrives at the asylum having been harmed by the world and with a growing expectation that he will be injured further by the methods and practices within the shelter of Magdalene’s walls.
This novel casts multiple spells over its readers and its characters. Readers with a growing understanding that the abuses at the fictional Magdalene were drawn from the world of standard abuses of the times, won’t be able to forget what they see there. As for Robert Mallory, in spite of his resolve, he’s not sure he can complete his personal journey out of the past and cure what ails Magdalene before he becomes yet another shadow alongside the old plantation’s dark river.
Note: Author Vivian Zabel will visit the Round Table on February 19th to discuss her novel Prairie Dog Cowboy.