An m/m romance between an attendant and an inmate in a Victorian insane asylum… I think I know why this was published after Christmas. It was actually less dark and considerably less dense than I feared it would be, which made it a more accessible read, but also let me down a bit in the end.
He’s been through electric shock therapy, water dunks, an attempted rape for which he was blamed, and the loss of his clothes and writing implements, but fate still holds something worse in store for former professor John Gilliam. When an old friend turns up as part of a visiting group to observe the deviant “Mr. G,” and refuses to acknowledge him, John loses his last remaining shreds of personal dignity. “If he hadn’t been mad before, he had become so; he had nothing left. They had taken his pens, and now they stripped him of his past.” The distraught John is carefully subdued by a hugely strong yet gentle attendant, who promises to try and get his clothes and writing materials back.
Sam Tully is generally kind and sympathetic to the inmates he cares for, but he’s especially sorry for John. “A single glance could tell you the man had tumbled a great distance, down, down, down. All that learning, all that money, and yet here he lay on the floor of of the asylum in one of the padded rooms where they put the most dangerous and damaged patients.” Although he’s wary of being around the homosexual patients — “too close to home” — pity leads Tully to offer to supervise John on his own time, while he uses the oh so dangerous paper and pencil, and John’s gratitude touches him deeply. He knows that getting close to a patient is wrong and dangerous, but he can’t bear to let John down.
As John and Tully become friends, and a powerful attraction grows between them, Tully begins to lose faith in the asylum’s treatment methods. And when their burgeoning sexual relationships puts them in peril, he may be John’s only chance for freedom.
The asylum setting is central to this romance. Gay men in most historical contexts have a huge strike against them to begin with, and John and Sam are also separated by vast class differences. The asylum weirdly equalizes them in a sense, giving them a chance to get to know one another and explore the special gifts each can offer their relationship. The fact that the working class Tully has a lot of power over John in this situation is turned around very neatly, because he’s so worried about taking advantage that he actually helps John recover: “I am not often able to say yes or no in this place and you have given me back that ability. You have given me choice again, Sam Tully.” Their shared experiences also contribute to an unexpectedly strong and believable happy ending.
The setting is also disturbing as hell. What happens to John demonstrates how difficult it is to prove your sanity in a place designed to completely disrupt your sense of self; John can’t even masturbate in peace, because the attendants will check. And this isn’t even one of the worst of the asylums — its head doctor is more misguided and greedy than outright evil. Initially I appreciated that narrative restraint, but I wound up feeling that the book might have been stronger if it had just gone straight for the Gothic jugular. The suspenseful elements in the later part of the story, which should have been utterly terrifying considering John’s captivity, never built up as much tension as I wanted.
I think this will have the most appeal for readers who enjoy seeing opposites attract; the distinct character voices are well drawn, and of course there are strong contrasts between the slender, intellectual John and the huge, calloused laborer Sam. The sex scenes are on the milder side, which feels very appropriate for a shorter novel — the focus stays on the characters and the setting — and the romance comes to full bloom very gently and sweetly at the end. B