Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 288 pages; $24).
Novels are often strong in one or two elements and lacking in others. Characters may stand out in one book while the plot suffers. In other tales, the setting might drive the story because there is just no plot at all. Rarely does one novel feature a triple play, as I call it, where the setting, the characterizations, and the plot are skillfully crafted and masterfully rendered. Yet, in her fourth novel, and perhaps her best to date, Blue Asylum, Kathy Hepinstall manages to do just that and then some.
Hepinstall previously wrote The House of Gentle Men, which was a finalist for the Penn Faulkner Awards West and an LA Times bestseller. Her other novels are The Absence of Nectar and Prince of Lost Places. She has not published a book since 2003 and her storytelling has been deeply missed.
Blue Asylum is well worth the wait. Hepinstall sets the story during the Civil War in an insane asylum on Sanibel Island. The beauty of the island starkly contrasts with the horrors of the institution. Blue water, lapping waves, white sand, and swaying palm trees almost suggest a vacation-like environment. Yet Sanibel Island is also home to snakes, alligators, sharks, and stingrays. However, the biggest threat on the island is not the wildlife.
Dr. Henry Cowell and his staff run the lunatic asylum. Cowell specializes in the madness of women. And he is certain he can cure his newest ward: Iris Dunleavy. Cowell is fond of the “water treatment,” a “cure” so painful it might as well be called torture. He knows all about Iris and feels she needs to be taken down a peg or two, and he is happy to do it. Cowell promises Iris’s husband that he’s going to make her “well again.” Iris and Cowell serve as each other’s antagonist. A battle of wills breaks out between the two.
Iris is the protagonist of Blue Asylum and a worthy one. Although not a mother, she is a maternal figure. This maternal instinct gets her into trouble more than once throughout the course of the story.
In fact, that nature is partly to explain why Iris is at the asylum in the first place. A judge declares her insane, despite her protests to the contrary. No one will listen to Iris. She swears adamantly that her only crime is defying her husband, a wealthy Virginia plantation owner: “I am not a lunatic. I am the victim of a terrible campaign of outright slander by my own husband.” Her disobedience lands her in the asylum.
Iris’s crime is revolutionary, or at least given the era in which Hepinstall sets the story. Robert Dunleavy, Iris’s husband, is cruel both to his wife and to his slaves: “He is simply a terrible man, a brutal slave owner, a liar, and a killer.” When his finances take a turn, he cuts back on what meager medicine and clothing he provides the slaves. He has the overseer punish them for even the slightest offenses. The punishment is so severe in one instance that Iris intervenes. Dunleavy, livid, vows revenge and treats Iris as if she were property. Iris hates her husband, especially when she catches him with a young slave girl.
Many plantation owners had sexual relations with their female slaves, but not all. Hepinstall accurately portrays Dunleavy as a man who believed slaves were property, to be bought and sold and punished according to the master’s will and whim. Hepinstall shows the resentment building and building in Dunleavy’s slaves, who ultimately decide to rebel against him.
The slaves plan to run away. Flight was perhaps the best way to “stick it” to one’s master. Since slave owners viewed slaves as property, when a slave ran away, he “stole himself.” Great expense was involved in tracking down and acquiring escaped slaves. When Hepinstall tells this part of the story, she gives us historical accuracy, and that is important, even if this is only fiction. She makes the tale believable and plausible.
That plausibility somewhat lessens when Hepinstall has Iris run away with the slaves. Her flight and her siding with the slaves to spite her husband is the crime that puts Iris in the asylum. As I researched slave resistance for my dissertation, I never once came across anything like this. Nowhere did I find a white plantation mistress running away with her husband’s slaves. In Hepinstall’s story, Iris runs away because she sees herself as their mother-figure, just as many slave owners viewed themselves as “fathers” to their slaves. Iris feels responsible, at least in part, for their plight at the hands of her husband.
Yet, who is to say this could not happen? After all, whites would have covered up such a thing. Whites would have buried the story of a mistress running away with her slaves so deeply that it would never have been written about. The mere mention of the account, in the eyes of whites, would put ideas into their slaves’ heads. Since slaves outnumbered whites in most towns, slave rebellion was a big fear. If a white mistress ever ran away with her husband’s slaves, it would most likely not be in any historical record. So while this may not be historically accurate, it is still entirely plausible. Something like this could have happened.
Iris, then, is not at the asylum because she is crazy. She is there because she defied her husband. Other patients at Sanibel Asylum really are there for a reason. One is Ambrose Weller, former Confederate soldier. Ambrose fights very real demons as he relives painful memories of the death of his best friend. Cowell treats Ambrose with laudanum and directs him to think of the color blue in times of distress. “Blue. Blue like a marble. Like cobalt glass…Like ice in a beard…Like the stained glass windows of a church.” Cowell feels he is making progress with Ambrose, or at least until Iris’s arrival.
Ambrose and Iris spend time together and fall in love. Theirs is a doomed romance. Ambrose really does need help; Ambrose really is mad. Iris, though, does not belong in the asylum and plans to escape.
Hepinstall’s prose is quietly hypnotic as she tells the story from the points of view of Iris, Ambrose, Cowell, and Wendell, Cowell’s son. Each character has a distinctive voice as he or she battles inner demons. Hepinstall uses lots of flashbacks, both for effect and to keep the plot suspenseful. She knows just when to pull back so we anticipate what happens next.
Blue Asylum‘s many characters stand out and benefit from being called crazy. Lydia Helms Truman has impeccable manners but is fond of swallowing anything from rings to letters to checkers. Keep your jewelry away from her. There is also the elderly widow who believes her late husband is still next to her. She talks to him, kisses him, and even dances with him. Hepinstall creates a man whose feet feel so heavy they are sometimes frozen in place.
All these mad people even affect the doctor. His patients and his family drive him crazy. Wendell, his son, is convinced that he is as mad as the others in the asylum. The boy gets too attached to patients and is convinced a tragedy that happens to him cleanses away his sins. Mrs. Cowell is addicted to laudanum and crazy-jealous of Iris. Hepinstall’s characters linger long after the book is closed.
Picturesque setting, memorable characters, and a suspenseful plot characterize Blue Asylum. If you’ve never read Hepinstall before, let this be your introduction. She is an author worthy of your attention.