I was drawn to the three lines on the cover of The Painted Bridge:
There’s the ingredients for a story that I am going to love very much. Anna’s husband Vincent tricks Anna into entering Lake House, a private asylum. Thinking she is accompanying him to visit friends she quickly finds herself the newest inmate. Her natural incomprehension and reluctance to cooperate is instantly labelled hysteria. Not content to accept her situation, Anna tries to find a way out of the loathsome establishment and understand why it is she has been hidden away.
At times during the book I did wonder whether Anna was paranoid or at least a little delusional. I love an unreliable narrator so was very receptive to this idea. Vincent’s story is not completely unreasonable when considered from the perspective of 1859. Anna feels called to help those lost at sea, sailors and the drowning. When she hears about a terrible wreck and a young boy thought lost found alive she dashes off alone to the coast. Taking with her some money and old clothing, her intention is to help the survivors, and find the boy. Her visions of the lad and her impetuousness are not usual for a vicar’s wife.
But however abnormal Anna’s behaviour may be, Vincent is a cold and unpleasant man. His actions are underhand, and his motives are not in anyone else’s best interests other than his own. He is embarrassed by his wife and would like to keep her out of sight if she cannot be the helpmeet he anticipated. Anna is also convinced that his actions are as much to do with a letter she stumbled across as they are with her mission of mercy.
Within the asylum the blurring between the sane and insane is beautifully done. As Anna quickly discovers, protesting one’s sanity only makes you look more insane. It is hard to tell staff from inmates, literally in some cases. Talitha Batt has been committed by her family but acts as an informal guardian. Makepeace is in charge of the women, but her past deeds are more heinous and driven by madness than anyone’s. The warden and his family are troubled by some unusual behaviour of their own. Abse is a man under pressure, from his family, by his financial precariousness, and by an upcoming inspection. I think he is not necessarily a cruel man, but under the weight of his burden he gives in brutality and punishment.
There are some moments of horror and revulsion, but there is also light amongst the darkness. The friendship Anna strikes with Catherine Abse helps Catherine deal with her own serious issues. Anna also finds acceptance and friendship inside the asylum. A young doctor, Lucas St Clair, and his interest in photography hold out hope for a more compassionate approach to illnesses of the mind.
I read The Painted Bridge in one go; obviously I was enjoying it hugely. The story has secrets kept deep within it, and the truth is slow to emerge. When it does scales fall from the eyes. There is more than one type of freedom, but they are all worth the fight.
I borrowed The Painted Bridge from my local library. It is now out in Paperback.