Reviewing: Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Today on ‘stories I didn’t realise were books before they were movies’: Shutter Island. I love the movie. Periodically I forget how good it is, then I watch it again and I sit there thinking ‘damn that’s a good movie’ so when I found out embarrassingly late in the day that it was a BOOK? Sign me right up on the ferry because guess who’s going back to Shutter Island.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the story, and the movie did an excellent job of translating the book to screen. It’s a book fan’s worst nightmare to see that book made into a terrible movie (Eragon I’m looking at you) and this one was done so well I could literally pinpoint lines, descriptions and scenes that they’d just filmed.

I know, I know, this isn’t a movie review. I just like movies.

Perhaps due to my own experience with it, I am fascinated by how the world treats and has treated mental health issues in the past. Asylums represent a dark patch in the history of humanity that began with the best of intentions and swiftly became something we use as the setting of horror films and ghost stories. Now that they sit abandoned, people pay to tour them, or sneak in under cover of darkness – but who would want to go there while they were still fully operational and full of people marked ‘criminally insane’? Shutter Island follows Federal Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule as they are called to Ashecliffe hospital in order to investigate a dangerous patient who has seemingly vanished overnight from her locked room, in a high security mental institution, on an island. Not the easiest of disappearing acts. The investigation turns up dead end after dead end, and those working and living there seem to be hiding something that might connect the pieces. Cut off from the world by a storm, the marshals fight to find the missing patient while uncovering something, seemingly, much more sinister. In the age of the trans-orbital lobotomy, it’s no wonder that there might be shady dealings going on at mental institutions, but how far will they be willing to go to keep those dealings covered up? With no return ferry in sight and no way home, they might be about to find out.

Perhaps my biggest regret is I knew what happened at the end, so the mystery was taken from the book. It’s kind of unavoidable really, read the book first, spoil the movie, watch the movie first, spoil the book. As a result of this I saw everything through the eyes of someone who knew what was going on, more as Doctor Sheehan than Teddy Daniels – and that only made it hurt more. I liked Teddy, despite his history of drinking and admission that he may not have been the best husband in the world. The loss of his wife, the things he’s seen and his seemingly inescapable place in the mechanisms of Ashecliffe hospital, you genuinely feel for him. He and Chuck have a great dynamic that switches from serious-cop-mode to ‘this is all getting a bit heavy how about a joke?’. This makes the ending all the more horrible.

If you haven’t seen/read it, I refuse to spoil it because whew that plot twist. That is one hell of a plot twist, and I refuse to say any more. But it kind of hurts.

As the storm rages on, and Teddy’s own hidden agenda comes to light, things go from bad to worse culminating in the discovery of just what Ashecliffe and its doctors are doing in the lighthouse. It’s fast paced and exciting and even though I already knew exactly what would happen I found myself thoroughly enjoying it – every time I hope it’ll go differently. It never does.

I really liked the character of Doctor Cawley, shifty though he may seem. His efforts to treat mental illness with compassion for the people it affects are admirable – especially when those people have in turn killed multiple other people. Fighting against the quick-fix surgical solution of lobotomy seems a losing battle (and historically it was, it was quite a while before people figured out that – shock horror – jabbing people in the brain through the eye socket might just be bad for them) but it is one he fights for the benefit of those entrusted to his care.

I also liked the lady who axed her husband to death, she was quite funny, little though she featured in the overall plot.

Quick aside for the use of racist language to describe African-american attendants at the hospital. You probably know which language, and the book is set during the 50s from the point of view of a white policeman which explains why, but just a heads up. As always I’d rather mention it in the review than have someone read it because I recommended it only to go ‘well she didn’t mention the casual racism’.

I wish I could have read it without knowing the all-important ending, but I still thoroughly enjoyed reading Shutter Island and would recommend it to any thriller fans out there! An exciting mystery read as well as a critical look back at how we have historically viewed and treated mental illness, its definitely a read to which the knowledge of how it goes adds an additional layer to reading.

Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖📖 5 books out of5

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