If you are looking for a book to read on the beach or just to while away a quiet afternoon, that will draw you in and beckon you back, this is it. Written with a prose that is at once simple and yet profound, as it deftly describes the atmosphere, in the luxury asylum for lunatics where Iris Dunleavy has been sent by her husband, this book won’t disappoint you. It is an illuminating vision of what life was like for a woman who opposed a husband in a position of authority, when she had none.
Iris is a soft spoken, but impulsive and determined woman. During the time of the Civil War, the women of the south were really under the control of their husbands, as were the slaves on their plantations, and, they too, were expected to be obedient and subservient to them. It was often the treatment of headstrong women, to be sent to lunatic asylums by their more powerful, cruel and arrogant husbands, in order to prevent them from embarrassing them, or themselves, by engaging in activities they deemed not respectable or proper for a lady. Engaging in women’s right’s movements or the politics of the day, was frowned upon, and thought to be unladylike subjects unfit for the delicate mind and constitution of women. Defying one's husband, especially in a public situation, was an absolutely humiliating affront to him and was, generally, not tolerated.
Immediately, on the first page, the readers are drawn into the story as they watch Iris as she stands on the deck of the ship taking her to the asylum in Virginia. Her back is straight and he demeanor calm. Her first thoughts are of the beauty of the location as she draws near. She sees a child and a black man, the son of the doctor who is the head of the asylum and the chef, fishing off the pier. She watches a young man, Ambrose, a former soldier suffering from the trauma of war, as he sits quietly before a checker board and appears quite normal. The relationship that blooms between Iris and Ambrose is a major theme.
The book makes you wonder, who is mad, who is sane, who gets to decide? Is Dr. Cowell fit to be the judge or is he just as mad as his patients? What motivates him? Is it his ego or his desire to return these people to the outside world again? Are the people who are employed there just a little mad also, or are they the victims of the madness surrounding them? Are the patients mad or has the environment they have been subjected to created the mental illness? Are women weak and frail, unfit to participate in the activities of men? Did Iris behave like a woman who has lost her sanity? Is Iris Dunleavy mad or is she simply the victim of her husband's authority?
This book is very intense. Near the end I was almost afraid to read on, fearful of the conclusion. I wondered if it would be happy, sad, gruesome? The author builds up the pressure until you feel afraid to turn the page for fear of what you will read. Although the ending is completely unexpected, I found it a little bit disappointing. On the whole, though, this is an imaginative, creative and original story. The chapters are short and easy to read. You won’t lose interest, because when you feel you might, the subject changes, just at the right time, and the story continues to hold your attention.
Can mental illness be cured? Can mistakes be forgiven? Can love conquer all? On the very last page, there is a scene with a lady who dances with a husband who isn’t really there. She imagines him into life. Is this the message of the book? Is she better off than those who live in misery, missing the person that isn’t there, the appendage that isn’t there, yearning for something unattainable? How do we find happiness? Did the doctor’s own arrogance and narcissism cause the events that transpired? The story will make you wonder what madness is, and who, indeed, is mad? In the 1800’s, psychiatry was in its infancy, the methods were untried and untested, the treatments were sometimes barbaric. Have we made any progress today or have we merely given the diagnoses, treatments and medications a different name? This book definitely packs a wallop and it will remain with you for a long time.
As an aside, if you enjoy this book, you might also want to see the film, "Iron Jawed Angels". It is a wonderful movie about the women who fought for the right to vote in the early 1900's, and the men who ruled over them, having them imprisoned indefinitely in asylums, as punishment for their outspoken behavior, believing this would cure them and return them to their conciliatory state of mind. Their pride was more important than their wives independence; even those that were well loved were mishandled in this way.