Fantasy Island for the Criminally Insane

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane ★★★

“Ashecliffe Hospital sat on the central plain of the island’s northwestern side. Sat benignly, I might add. It looked nothing like a hospital for the criminally insane and even less like the military barracks it had been before that. Its appearance reminded most of us of a boarding school. A mansarded Victorian housed the warden and a dark, beautiful Tudor minicastle served as the quarters of our chief of staff. The compound was composed of lawns and sculpted hedges, great shady oaks, Scotch pines and trim maples, apple trees whose fruit dropped to the tops of the wall in late autumn or tumbled onto the grass…”

This rather charming depiction of the setting, from the prologue by our narrator, the elderly Dr. Lester Sheehan, comes in sharp contrast with the disturbing quality of events that transpire over a four-day period in 1954. The story begins as U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck Aula are making each others acquaintance on a ferry bound for Shutter Island. They have been sent there to find a patient, one Rachel Solando, a delusional woman interned for murdering her three small children. The case quickly takes on surrealistic overtones when it becomes apparent that the patient has vanished from her locked room which offers no possible exits, in a building heavily guarded by numerous staff members. Marshall Daniels becomes convinced that a cryptic note left behind by the woman holds important clues. But a thorough search of the island fails to produce any trace of Rachel Solando and the note proves impossible to decode. Concluding that he and his partner can’t help with the case any further, Daniels soon decides they should leave island, but is told there will be no ferry service and that the lines of communication have been cut off from the mainland due to a violent storm that is rapidly headed in their direction.

I found it difficult to form a fair opinion about this book, as I saw the movie adaptation only a few months ago. While the book does leave a little bit more to the imagination, the movie was a fairly accurate rendition of the story, so that the reading of it proved disappointing since the surprise elements of this psychological thriller were lost on me and there was little else to sink my teeth into. Because of this, was inclined to give the book a fairly low rating. However, I decided to take into account the positive impressions of the movie which I found engrossing, filled with unusual characters and situations (not to mention visually stunning). The first half of the story held me captive. I was awed by the thrilling twists and turns and more than willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, but about halfway through it all began to fall apart for me as one improbable thing after another kept piling up and I caught on to the outcome much too early. Again, to be fair and give credit where it’s due, the payoff at the end is quite good and I won’t give anything away so as not to spoil the experience for anyone. Unfortunately for me, I saw the signs all along and while I wanted to root for Lehane for the way he built up all the elements of what is ultimately a well told fantasy, I couldn’t help but wish the surprise element had been greater. All in all a good book. Just be sure to see the movie after reading it.

As a side note, it’s interesting that I didn’t see that this book and the one I read previously (see my review for Regeneration) both shared the setting of a mental hospital until I had read quite a few chapters. But then again, these two books couldn’t be more different from one another in every other way, except for the fact that in both cases, the psychiatrists are depicted as people who truly had the wellbeing of their patients at heart and adopted humane courses of treatment, even though the periods in which the stories take place can be compared to the dark ages of psychiatry when invasive approaches we now consider barbaric were more commonly used to cure mental disorders.

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3 thoughts on “Fantasy Island for the Criminally Insane

  1. surprised? really? “Mystic River”, obviously and two others the titles of which I don’t remember offhand – Coronado being one of them.

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