This book had been languishing on my “to read” list for seven years, but after enjoying Mexican Gothic late last year I decided to get around to this one sooner rather than later. Reading it at long last, I mostly really enjoyed it. It does, however, suffer from an ending that really doesn’t live up to the promise of the rest of the book.
The story is narrated by one James Richardson, a young psychiatrist who takes up a position at an asylum in East Anglia in the 1950s. The asylum is operated by a man called Hugh Maitland – based on a real historical psychiatrist called William Sargant – and the part of it he’s most proud of is the titular “sleep room”, where the six patients are kept deeply sedated nearly all the time, roused only thrice a day to eat and “void” their bowels (and even then, they’re at best semi-conscious). Richardson is a little uneasy about the rigidness of this program and Maitland’s unwillingness to discuss the patients' histories, but ultimately he’s overawed by Maitland’s reputation and goes along with what he’s been hired to do.
The story builds slowly. Things happen that Richardson can’t really explain – like the loss of people’s rings and their recovery in places it doesn’t make sense for them to have been in. A couple of others at the facility – a nurse and a patient – seem to suffer hallucinations, with dire consequences. But it’s also the case that his mind isn’t fully on the odd things afoot; he’s also distracted by a relationship he has with a nurse, then stress over his future job prospects, and so it goes…
I didn’t mind the story building slowly. It’s highly atmospheric, the prose is readable and engrossing, and a lot of the slowness comes in the form of character moments, which I actually enjoyed. Nonetheless there is this gnawing sense of wrongness that grows and grows as the book proceeds towards its conclusion.
The only real issue I had with this book is, in fact, the conclusion. The climax comes on rather suddenly, then escalates fast, until it’s all over and there’s still 10% of the book left to go. You might think this is just an overlong “falling action” section, but the narrator keeps implying that there’s something more to the mystery until an “epilogue” of sorts confuses the whole thing. From the interview with the author at the end of my Kindle edition, I gather that he thinks it’s really clever when a story has two plausible, yet completely different and incompatible, explanations for what you’ve just read. So on the one hand, you could ignore that “epilogue” and treat this as a story about a poltergeist, which is what I’m inclined to do. Or you could take the “epilogue” seriously and dismiss the whole story as, basically, the fever dream of a very unwell man. I’m not keen on “SURPRISE! It was all a dream!” endings so yeah, I would prefer the interpretation by which the story wasn’t all a colossal waste of my time. Maybe it’s the letter at the end that’s the dream, haha.
So overall – a dark and spooky easy read, let down perhaps by a difficult-to-interpret ending. I enjoyed it, in spite of that flaw.