Asylum: “the most credible – and therefore the most disturbing – dystopian novel I [have] ever read”- SUNDAY TIMES is a fascinating read. It is set in a place called the Pearson Quarantine facility, where patients have been forcibly detained because they are suffering from a terminal disease called ‘pulmonary nodulosis.’ This condition is so rampant that it has reached the level of a plague. There is no cure for the condition and sufferers gradually die as their lungs get increasingly scarred. [Note – This story was actually based on the real life enforced hospitalisation of patients with drug resistant tuberculosis in 2008 in South Africa].
The book follows the narrative of patient Barry James who keeps a diary of his experiences at Pearson. There are short introductions to his diary entries written after the fact, that sometimes factually refute what you are about to read. This is an interesting idea as you then read the entry in a more objective way.
Some of Barry’s experiences are dream type scenarios. Low successfully captures the strange dreaminess of what it is like when one is fevered and ill and have limited ability to tell fiction from reality. You begin to wonder how much of the visions that Barry experiences are induced by the symptoms of the illness or the drugs that he is given. Barry sees characters who keep appearing and disappearing which add an element of creepiness to the story.
You learn quite early on that the protagonist may not be a reliable narrator and this device is used to full effect during his counselling sessions when he reveals something that happened from his past. This incident makes you temporarily lose sympathy for the character until you read on and realise that it may never have actually happened. (My lips are sealed so you need to read the book to find out what I’m referring to here!). Overall, you do have sympathy towards the character who is stuck in this enforced limbo and is a young victim of a dreadful disease.
Asylum reminds me of one of my favourite books, The Outsider by Albert Camus. Though there are differences in the settings of both books, there is a similarity in the observant nature of the protagonists. Low writes Barry as projecting a feeling of not being connected to events in some way, producing a distancing effect which is very hard to successfully achieve in writing, but which Low creates with aplomb.
This is a fascinating story that has a dark, dreamlike quality. It has already been shortlisted for at least one prize and I can easily see it being listed and winning many book awards in the future. I can also see it being adapted for a film. So, go ahead and read it, you won’t be disappointed.