Theorin, Johan - 'The Asylum' (translated by Marlaine Delargy)
Johan Theorin has gained a substantial following with his books set on the island of Oland in the Baltic Sea. We're still awaiting the fourth in the quartet, as the most recent book to be translated, THE ASYLUM is a standalone novel very different in tone and feel from Theorin's previous books.
Jan Hauger is a pre-school teacher who applies for a job at The Dell, a school attached to the psychiatric hospital of St Patricia's. The children of some of the hospital's patients are educated at the pre-school and allowed regular access to their parent through a subterranean passage. The hospital is referred to locally as St Pscho's, mainly due to the notoriety and fame of many of the institution's dangerous patients.
Jan has plenty of pre-school experience but also has a subtext for wanting the job. One of the inmates is Alice Rami, a briefly famous singer who has a history of psychiatric problems. Since Alice and Jan were once briefly hospitalised in the same institution and struck up a friendship, he has been obsessed with the singer. However Jan also has another secret. A child in his care once went missing for a short period of time and authorities were convinced that Jan was involved in the kidnapping.
Theorin has rightly gained a reputation for well written books with a strong sense of place. We get this too with THE ASYLUM, where the brooding and mysterious hospital is contrasted with the cheerfulness of the pre-school. But not everything is as it seems. Some children in the school are showing worrying signs of cruelty, staff are communicating with patients and mysterious intruder is using the passage late at night to exit the hospital.
The book has three separate narratives, all involving Jan. The most substantial part is his current preoccupation with St Patricia's, but we are also given glimpses of his time as a teenager in the psychiatric unit and also the period when the young boy in his care goes missing.
There is a strong sense of developing suspense that ratchets up a notch every few chapters and given that much of the narrative involves young children, it is a credit to Theorin that he is able to make a distasteful subject readable without being sensationalist.
In terms of the great reveal towards the end of the novel, I had already guessed what would happen, but overall it was a very good suspenseful read.
Sarah Ward, England