A review of Nights in the Asylum by Carol Lefevre

Reviewed by rob walker

Nights in the Asylum
by Carol Lefevre
Vintage Books Australia/Random House (Aust) 2007
Picador (UK)
ISBN 978 1 74166 533 8, RRP $32.95

“Catastrophe can turn a comfortable life inside out and leave any one of us stranded, dependent on the kindness of strangers, or vulnerable to their cruelty – as the characters in this sensuous and moving novel discover.” (Random House blurb.)

Carol Levre has had a long-term interest in photography as well as writing. It shows. Nights in the Asylum is atmospheric and filmic, from soft-focus pans and establishing shots, to tight editing in cutting from scene to scene. She uses the cinematic (and literary) technique of developing a number of distinct characters and plots which intersect at the narrative’s climax when the scenes become shorter and more frantic. The sections of the novel – Camera Obscura, Diorama, Scattered Light, Diffraction 
and Undated Photographs also follow this approach, with the climactic dénouement occurring in Diffraction. ‘Undated Photographs’ brought to mind the stills that often accompany a movie’s endcrawl: “The settlement awarded to the plaintiffs in Hinkley v. PG&E was the largest in a direct-action lawsuit in United States history.” (Erin Brockovich, 2000.) Or the stills-montage that shows the protagonists one year later. But Carol Lefevre’s snapshots are far more subtle and open to interpretation.

I believe this is an important Australian novel which addresses the contemporary dilemma of the asylum seeker. The novel comes at a time when the refugee issue is transforming from one of a (frustrating, on my part) general apathy towards ‘queue-jumpers’ around the time of the SIEVX to a burgeoning collective empathy (perhaps guilt) towards refugees genuinely seeking asylum in this country.

Aziz loses everything – home, family, perhaps even his sanity for a time, and makes his way in a fog of grief to a leaky boat traveling from Indonesia to Australia . The boat sinks. Aziz is rounded up and herded into one of the concentration camps that we euphemistically call Detention Centres. He escapes and we first meet him wandering in the outback.

Miriam is in a psychiatric hospital. Her reality has disintegrated after the sudden and violent death of her daughter.

I’ve reconstructed these two characters’ stories in a linear way which is not reflected in the book. The novel begins with Miri / Miriam on the day of her daughter’s funeral. Later she is returning to the unnamed city of Broken Hill and stops to give water to a dazed Aziz…

I won’t give away any more of the story, which is tight and utterly believable.

Apart from conventional flashbacks, the narrative is generally linear, apart from some time ‘leapfrogging’ as the plot advances through chapters which are events seen through the eyes of the main protagonists. I say “eyes”, but Carol’s writing is very poetic and sensuous – I liked the emphasis on odours – so each chapter reflects one person’s perspective through their own vocabulary and Weltanschauung. This can be chilling when it’s done well (I recalled the matter-of-fact account of the kidnapper in John Fowles’ The Collector.) Lefevre does it well.

As a poet, this imagist approach really appeals to me. The descriptions of characters are poems in themselves – finely-crafted word pictures which go far beyond the physical. It’s as if she is attempting to render an image of the inner-workings of each character’s mind…

So often sex in novels descends to trite soft (or hard) porn. Carol Lefevre expresses erotica that is potent and sensual because it accompanies overwhelming love.

You have to remind yourself that this is a work of fiction. You’ve met these people before – and they’re not stereotypes; they’re real human beings with the strengths and flaws present in us all. The bullying Mervyn, Aziz the Afghani asylum-seeker, Miri, the successful actor/model whose marriage disintegrates, closely followed by her life when her daughter is killed, Zett, the abused young wife who still sees herself to blame when her bent-cop husband Jude loses his temper and delivers the bruises she ‘probably deserves.’ Chandelle, the waitress at the truckstop who continually touches up her make-up just in case Mr Right walks in to take her away from all this…

The lives of these characters intersect at a run-down old mansion called Havana Gardens. Each person is running away from someone or something and all are in desperate need of their own form of asylum.
Précised like this, the story may sound bleak and depressing. It isn’t. If anything, it offers hope. Hope that overcomes ignorance and evil. Optimism that even the most desperate can persist and prevail.

Lefevre suggests that we are all potential refugees. There is evil afoot – but there are also unexpected saviours amongst the most mundane.

It is the ‘real-ness’ of the characters and narrative that appeals. The climax is what we might hope, without the over-stated hyperbole of the Hollywood blockbuster.

This is a very mature and competent work. Even more astounding that this is Carol Lefevre’s first novel. It will be a hard act to follow…

About the reviewer: rob walker is a South Australian poet and teacher of music and drama. His poems have been published widely in poetry journals, anthologies, websites and other media in Australia, NZ, UK, Ireland, Canada and the US, including Best Australian Poems 2005 (ed. Les Murray), ABC radio’s poeticA, poetry and music on Cds and his collections micromacro (Seaview Press, 2006 and sparrow in an airport, (Friendly Street New Poets Ten.)