Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall was a book I have been excited to read ever since reading the short synopsis I was given when offered a copy for review:
Amid the mayhem of the Civil War, Virginia plantation wife Iris Dunleavy is put on trial and convicted of madness. It is the only reasonable explanation the court can see for her willful behavior, so she is sent away to Sanibel Asylum to be restored to a good, compliant woman. Iris knows, though, that her husband is the true criminal; she is no lunatic, only guilty of disagreeing with him on notions of justice, cruelty, and property. On this remote Florida island, cut off by swamps and seas and military blockades, Iris meets a wonderful collection of residents -- some seemingly sane, some wrongly convinced they are crazy, some charmingly odd, some dangerously unstable. One of these is Ambrose Weller, the war-haunted Confederate soldier whose memories terrorize him into wild fits that can only be calmed by the color blue, but whose gentleness and dark eyes beckon to Iris. The institution calls itself modern, but Iris is skeptical of its methods, particularly the dreaded "water treatment." She must escape, but she has found new hope and love with Ambrose. Can she take him with her? If they make it out, will the war have left anything for them to make a life from, back home?
I am pretty particular when it comes to tone, and some of my pet peeves are books set in the past that have a very modern tone or books set in the past that have a tone that doesn't really ring true to me as a reader. This book, from the opening sentence, transports you back in time in the most fabulous way. The entire time I read the book, I was not only enjoying the world that was created for me, but also wondering, How does she do it?!?! This is fantastic! Having read some not-so-great historical fiction, I was enchanted by this book.
Not only was the tone simply divine, but the setting ...a semi-tropical island mental institution on the beach? Come on. I could hear the waves of the ocean the entire time I was reading. I could feel the humidity. I was constantly "on the lookout" for crocodiles and big bugs. And while Iris was being held at a mental institution for being a "willful woman," and you feared for her safety every moment, the setting was oddly romantic.
Now, Iris. Oh Iris. I ached for this woman who was being imprisoned for disagreeing with husband, especially because you know it actually happened in this time period. A time when feminists were considered mentally unhinged and tortured? Horrifying. But this woman will not be broken. True to her character, Iris' actual story is revealed slowly -- painfully slowly -- but it would ruin the book if you knew all the details up front. Iris is a mystery, but you are always on her side, never doubting her motivations.
This is the story of a sad period in our history. It is the story of Iris, the story of Ambrose, the story of Iris and Ambrose, the story of the mental institution's doctor, the doctor's son, and the island itself. Painful and beautiful at the same time and lovingly written, Blue Asylum is a story you will surely enjoy.
If you'd like to hear what other bloggers on the TLC book tour had to say about this book, click HERE for the full schedule of reviews. You can also check out her website and blog.