REVIEW: Asylum

GARETH LANGDON reviews Marcus Low’s quietly devastating debut novel.

Asylum

Post apocalyptic motifs are overdone. Between The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games, contemporary media seems to scream the need for us all to be prepared for the worst – for the coming of the end. Whether or not this is a universal set of fears, or something unique to Hollywood is not much of a question. What matters is that it is a tired trope, and that anyone hoping to tackle the genre is going to have an uphill battle.

Marcus Low makes light work of this challenge in his debut novel, Asylum. The novel follows, through a series of eloquent and detailed journal entries, the plight of James Barry. Barry has been diagnosed with a fatal lung disease – likely tuberculosis – and finds himself incarcerated in a treatment facility or modern day sanitorium, in the middle of the Karoo. His days drag on at a snail’s pace as he gazes out of the window at the dry bones of the earth, watching nothing happen, and writing regularly in his notebooks. He has made some friends though, and as inmates are want to do, they begin planning their escape. The novel traces Barry’s internal struggles as well as the planning and execution of their proposed escape. Composed of notebook fragments and interjected with editor’s notes, written from what is ostensibly the point of view of whoever discovered the notebooks, the novel has an intensely personal feel.

Asylum is at once apocalyptic rendering, and psychological exploration. Barry is a sensitive character, with a painful yet mysteriously unsubstantiated past. His voice reads as hurt rather than angry, as resigned rather than determined. The notebooks function as both a solace for him, and as a way of leaving a legacy – one which is, at times, deliberately skewed. The choice of setting in the Karroo works well for this genre as the vast expanse of the landscape, as well as its dry, dusty harshness, create an atmosphere that lends itself to a story of loneliness, longing and resignation.

The plague in Asylum is more insidious however. Rather than go the obvious route of monsters or Orwellian dictatorship, the author has chosen a silent killer – a lung disease, airborne – that slowly causes deterioration in its hosts, presenting as coughing up of blood, tiredness, and the odd hallucination. Low seems far more interested in the interior conflict of Barry however, and the lung disease serves more as a measure of time, counting down the days to his death as it progresses, and as a parallel to his mental deterioration.

Like the disease that afflicts Barry, the sense of this novel overall is also insidious. The reader has the sense all along that something is very wrong, but that what’s wrong is less important than the characters’ experience of it. What matters to Low is what is going on in their heads – the humanness of it all – which explains the use of journals as the primary medium in the novel. Cleverly, by focusing on a single point of view, Low avoids many of the traps of modern end-of-the world fiction, the distractions of monsters and dictators. Instead, we are presented with a very human experience in an inhumane world, and are made to appreciate the moments of light that make our own experience bearable, even if for Barry as for some of is, these come in the form of dreams and hallucinations rather than genuine human experience.

Rather than offering escapism, Low is brave enough to dig deeper. He explores humanity without sacrificing the enticing nature of mystery that many apocalyptic-genre novels do well. The choice of the Karroo as a setting also eases the imaginative leap that a South African reader has to make, a feeling all too close to home running throughout the narrative.

As a debut, Asylum is cleverly crafted and engaging – an encouraging sign of things to come for an exciting South African talent.

Asylum is published by Picador Africa.