Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Asylum, by Johan Theorin

Doubleday/Transworld , 2012
411 pp
 originally published as Sankta Psyko,
 translated by Marlene Delargy

paper; UK edition
(read in May)

"...who amongst us can say that we are always healthy?"

Sheesh -- I've been away a long time from crime while trying to catch up on lots of other things both book related (a veritable outpouring of amazing literary fiction) and home related.  Next month I'll definitely be more productive, as I'll be catching up on the gigantor stack of crime novels I've been amassing here in the last 6 months.  Anyway, I read The Asylum while vacationing in Hawaii, during a rain storm that lasted an entire day -- the perfect setting for reading this highly atmospheric novel that takes place largely within the confines of a psychiatric hospital in Valla, Sweden.

As the novel opens, Jan Hauger has applied for job as a classroom assistant at the Dell preschool located in a building at St. Patricia's Hospital, lovingly referred to as "St. Psycho's" by the locals. St. Patricia's is home to patients of all sorts, but it houses some people who "have destructive impulses, antisocial men and women who have done what you might call bad things," and the preschool allows some children to visit their parents who are patients. One of its most famous inmates is Ivan Rössel, a serial killer who has left many bodies in his wake. Jan has a history working with preschool children but he believes that this job will actually get him closer to someone he knew in the past, Alice Rami, who he is convinced is a patient there. We get the impression that Jan has something to hide nearly immediately, when the doctor conducting the job interview calls a preschool where he's worked before and Jan is mentally hoping that there is no one there who remembers him.  But all goes well, and Jan gets the position. As he begins his duties, he becomes obsessed with the idea of somehow getting himself into the hospital; it is connected to the preschool building via an underground tunnel and an elevator that is always met by someone.  The preschool staff, including Jan,  is not allowed there, but finding a way in becomes a regular  obsession with him. As the story progresses, the novel is split into three interwoven parts all very much connected to each other --  the present where Jan, a loner,  tries to make connections with some of the staff, the past connected to his time at the Lynx preschool, and earlier in his troubled boyhood. Although it's not quite apparent at first why, all of these episodes will meld into one huge tragedy, all connected with St. Patricia's Hospital. 

I have read and thoroughly loved each and every one of Johan Theorin's crime-fiction novels, mainly because this writer is truly a master of atmosphere.  His crimes are tightly plotted, his characters credible,and his sense of place is perfectly executed.  In his newest novel, The Asylum, that lovely gothic, creepy atmosphere is there -- but to be quite honest, I'd have to say that it's my  least favorite work by this author. It starts out with all the right elements: a mental hospital that also houses the criminally insane as well as an experimental preschool for children whose family members are patients there, a young man looking to reconnect with a piece of his past, and a sense of dread that fills the reader with instant tension that rarely lets up. Each character has a role to play and most of them are very well developed.   But by the time I finished, I was actually disappointed because the story became predictable and frankly, highly implausible toward the end and without even having to read it I knew exactly what was going to happen.  I did finish, but it only confirmed what I'd guessed. Arrgh!  One of my favorite authors tries something new,  call it an atmospheric thriller if you will, and it just didn't work for me.  However, the getting there was the best part -- my stomach was tied in knots for much of the reading time from the suspense, especially Jan's attempts to get into the hospital  -- up until the last few chapters which were a complete letdown -- too pat, not realistic and frankly, not befitting the quality of this author's other work.  

I wish I could be more upbeat about this book, but I always call things the way I see them. However, to be very fair, there are several good reviews of this novel  with high star ratings, so it's my pickiness at work here I'm sure.  I'd still definitely recommend it, especially to readers who enjoy awesome Gothic settings and the feeling of dread running through their veins while reading.  
crime fiction from Sweden


  1. Nancy - I am sorry to hear that you felt let down by the end of this novel. Like you, I'm a fan of Theorin's work and of course, one always wants to absolutely adore a book by a favourite author. But that said, books don't strike everyone in the same way and more than anything I appreciate your candor. Hopefully you'll like his next better.

    1. Oh that's okay -- I normally don't mind when an author does something different, but the predictability and implausibility of this one just didn't do it for me. I am, as you know, a picky reader!

  2. Oh, sorry it was a disappointment. Theorin is not one of my favorite Nordic authors. I don't like supernatural overtones, ghosts, throwbacks to characters who lived a century earlier.

    But I am interested in what you say about "amazing literary fiction." I read Barbara Kingsolver's latest work of fiction "Flight Behavior," and loved it -- the characters, Appalachian setting, focus on climate change and its science told in a popular way, a woman's journey to improve her life -- and good writing.

    I'm trying to figure out what other literary fiction to read this summer. I do take a break occasionally from mysteries to read other fiction. But it's got to be good and interesting.

    I'd be very interested in seeing what you have read and what you think. And do you read global literary fiction or only U.S.?

    1. Kathy -- the Theorin book has none of that -- it's less a crime novel than a thriller sort of thing.

      I read global fiction must more than US fiction, actually. I just finished Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally from Australia, and I'm just about to pick up Colum McCann's TransAtlantic. There is a link to the main page of my online reading journal on this page -- that will direct you to the year of my reading year. Take a peek!


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it