My enormous thanks to Lucy Chamberlain at Legend Press for sending me a copy of Asylum by Marcus Low in return for an honest review.
Published by Legend Press on 15th April 2019, Asylum is available for purchase here.
Barry James is detained in a quarantine facility in the blistering heat of the Great Karoo. Here he exists in two worlds: the unforgiving reality of his incarceration and the lyrical landscapes of his dreams. He has cut all ties with his previous life, his health is failing, and he has given up all hope. All he has to cling to are the meanderings of his restless mind, the daily round of pills and the journals he reluctantly keeps as testimony to a life once lived.
And then there’s an opportunity to escape.
My Review of Asylum
Barry James is in quarantine in a secure unit isolated from the rest of society.
Now, I usually eschew dystopian fiction because it’s not my preferred genre, but Asylum has persuaded me that I am missing a thought-provoking and somewhat disturbing area of fiction. I can’t say I enjoyed Asylum as that would be the wrong description, because I found it perturbing and unsettling, but I loved the vivid and disquieting quality of Marcus Low’s writing. Indeed, although this is a slim book, I think it would reward several readings to uncover its layers of meaning more fully. I found it fascinating.
There’s a bleak beauty and frequently lyrical quality in Asylum, particularly to the descriptions of Barry’s dreams. The landscape is vivid and stark which adds to the menacing aspect of the read. The frequent references to the white sheets and white pill Barry is given made me wonder if I were meant to think of him as an innocent because he is associated with a colour that frequently represents purity.
What is really interesting however, is that, although the reader is ostensibly reading Barry’s own writing in Asylum, he’s never fully knowable. This aspect forced me to consider the way in which society isolates and judges others, in this case those with an infection, and behaves toward them without fully considering an individual. I cared about Barry but I didn’t know if I could trust him.
I found myself almost voyeuristically engaged with the story. I felt uncomfortable reading what are presented as the journals of Barry James with some editorial marginalia so that it made me feel complicit in the treatment and incarceration of Barry and his fellow inmates. Asylum confronts the reader with realities and potential near futures that they may not wish to consider. There’s a devastating bleakness and ultimate futility underpinning the narrative that I found profoundly sad.
I finished Asylum feeling I had read a novel written with sensitivity and ingenuity. Asylum make me think. It forced me to look at the nature of identity, death and of society. It didn’t always make for comfortable reading but I am glad I have had the opportunity to immerse myself into its pages.
About Marcus Low
Marcus Low is a Cape Town-based writer and public health specialist. He completed an MA in creative writing at the University of Cape Town in 2009 – for which he wrote an early draft of Asylum. Marcus previously worked as Policy Director at the Treatment Action Campaign, an influencial South African civil society organisation that advocates for the rights and interests of people living with and affected by tuberculosis (TB) and HIV. He remains involved in public health policy both in South Africa and internationally. His novel Asylum was in part inspired by the incarceration of patients with drug-resistant forms of TB in South Africa circa 2008 – something he directly encountered in his work. He was born in Vryburg, South Africa in 1979.
You can follow Marcus on Twitter @MarcusLowX