Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What Does a Pod Peep Read -- c.anne.gardner

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Now I don't generally read a lot of mystery/suspense thriller type stories unless they are heavy on the psychodrama, so I wasn't entirely sure what I was getting into with this one. I heard the movie was lousy, and to me, the trailers almost made it seem like it had some paranormal aspect to the story. I wasn't sure if it was a horror, a mystery, or what, but, as a general rule, I always like to read a book before I see a movie. I found the ebook price to be reasonable, so I decided to give it a shot. I was familiar with Lehane by way of Mystic River, which I enjoyed immensely, so I thought it was a safe bet that I wouldn't be too disappointed.

What I found was a plot so tight and so tense you could bounce a coin off of it. What started out feeling like a detective story turned into one of the most frightening psych dramas I have read in a while, and I didn't see the end coming: it just slams into you out of nowhere. But what was even more frightening was the very up close and personal look we get at the psychiatric field in the 1950s, back when lobotomies were standard practice and homosexuality was treated with shock therapy, which they innocuously termed "conversion therapy."

Our book starts it's tangled rather deceptive plotline as a Detective Story. It's 1954 and US Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule are assigned to Ashcliffe -- a small island Mental Hospital in the Massachusetts outer harbour -- to investigate the issue of a missing patient. Actually, Ashcliffe is more of a federal prison for the criminally insane. During the course of the investigation, it becomes apparent that the staff of Aschcliffe are hiding something and that the lives of Marshals Daniels and Aule are very much in danger.

There is a lot going on in this story. Teddy Daniels is suffering over the loss of his wife to a house fire, and his ulterior motive for getting himself assigned to the island is that he heard the pyromaniac/arsonist who burned his house down currently resides at the facility. Also, after much covert investigation, Teddy has come to conclusion they the staff at the hospital are using their patients for experimental research reminiscent of the Nazi regime. However, everything is mere illusion, when the real story comes slamming into you about two-thirds of the way into the book, you will stand up and shout, "No fuckin' way!!!" like I did. The critics called it a mind-bending plot twist, and I have to agree with them on that.

Lehane's writing is typical for the genre. It's about storytelling, so most of the mainstream writing you find in this genre can't be considered great prose styling, but then again, it isn't meant to be. Shutter Island is a plot-driven thriller for most of the book. Even so, it adequately explores a wide range of emotion: fear, obsession, paranoia, and so the complex plotline plays into those emotions. It's very disorienting, and there is a solid reason why, but I won't spoil it for those who have not read it.

Beyond the psychology, what really stood out for me was how the story explored the social attitudes of the time. It was Cold War USA, and there was a lot of prejudice against minorities, more specifically, the mentally ill. There is a scene in which Teddy finally runs into the elusive Warden for the first time and the conversation they have is so truly frightening I got the chills. For those who are sensitive to the "N" word, in this scene we get a rather graphic view of humanity’s less than compassionate attitudes with regards to race, poverty, and the mentally ill, so be prepared for it. Some of America's historical attitudes are not pleasant. Unpleasantness aside, there is something insightful and telling on just about every page.

Even after reaching the end of the book where all the "realities" of the story are exposed, the author still draws the reader back into the delusion in the final pages. The intricate plotting was quite brilliant. You will think you know what's going on, and then, just like our main character Teddy, you will find your entire world turned around on you.

There were some spots where the writing felt a bit clunky to read, mostly in the dialog, but it was easily overlooked, and I actually loved how Lehane worked in the rather lengthy exposition in the end. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes psychodramas, cop stories, and thrillers. It hits all the marks.

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