Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review: Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

What is normal? Who gets to decide what is outside the bounds of normal? The DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)? The courts? Society? Family? The person him or herself? Not so long ago, women's defined mental states were entirely at the mercy of their families, fathers, husbands, male children, etc. More completely sane, smart, independent, and freethinking women were committed to mental institutions based on the testimony of the disgruntled men in their lives than ever should have been.

In Kathy Hepinstall's gripping novel, Blue Asylum, set during the American Civil War, main character Iris Dunleavy is sent to an insane asylum on Sanibel Island because she has turned out to be an embarrassment to her husband, defying him, and disagreeing with him on fundamental moral issues, including the issue of slavery which was rending the entire country apart. She has been committed to the asylum on the say so of her husband, whom she knows to be amoral and guilty of a heinous crime, and a judge, who clearly discounts a woman's tale, even one told in truth. And she arrives on the island remanded to the care of a pompous and self-involved doctor who is incapable or unwilling to listen to her and to hear the truth of her story. It would be enough to drive any sane person crazy. But quiet, observant Iris is made of stronger stuff than most. She befriends the doctor's young son Wendell and, improbably enough, falls in love with a fellow inmate, Ambrose Weller, a soldier who suffers terrible attacks and rage as a result of his experiences in the war and who can only sometimes be soothed by invoking the idea of the calming color blue.

Both Iris' and Ambrose's stories tease out through the narrative, slowly drawing the reader into the awful horrors in their pasts that caused them to end up in Sanibel Asylum even as their future quietly and cautiously unspools before them. Dr. Cowell's past experiences and the tragedy in Wendell's young life are also carefully revealed, offering both of these secondary characters motivation for their actions towards the "lunatics," and specifically Iris and Ambrose. As Iris falls for Ambrose, she decides she must include him in her plans to escape the island, certain that her love will be able to cure him in ways that Dr. Cowell's techniques have not yet managed. And yet despite her desire to leave and to be with her love, can Iris really reintegrate herself in a society that has locked her away without a second thought? And can Ambrose overcome the terrible moment that destroyed him, breaking the grip the war has on his mind and memories?

Hepinstall has written a fantastic, short novel about the place of women in the 1860's, questions of sanity and morality, the horrors of war, and of love and truth. Her characters are wonderfully real and well rounded. The smooth, even pace of the novel is perfect, sweeping the reader along as Iris, Ambrose, Wendell, and Dr. Cowell interact in concert and at cross-purposes as they move towards their inevitable conclusion. The evocative writing makes the buggy, humid, lush environs of Sanibel Island come alive as a place just far enough removed from the war raging on the mainland that it seems isolated and almost untouched by the turmoil except in small key ways, like the inability to get supplies, especially meat, in a timely manner. Sanibel Asylum is a time out of place just as the people incarcerated there are a people out of accepted society. This is definitely a book not to be missed.

For more information about Kathy Hepinstall and the book visit her website or her blog. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. Looks like a great book, thanks for the review!

  2. I need to get my hands on this book. I've heard nothing but great things about it.

  3. So great to hear about new literary historical fiction! The plot sounds intriguing. Thanks so much for reviewing Blue Assylum.

  4. Kristen, thanks for the great review! Much appreciation, Kathy, Iris, Ambrose, Dr. Cowell, Wendell and Lydia Helms Truman.

  5. Women were so completely dependent on men for so many years ... books like this remind me how lucky I am to live where and when I live.

    Thanks for being on the tour! I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

  6. What a gorgeous review! I really liked this book too, and I love the way you described the story, writing style, and themes. The first paragraph of this post is terrific too. Very thought-provoking. ;-)


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