Review: Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island is a horrifying book that I’ve read three times now. It’s perfect for a sick day: it has large print, it reads quickly, and it’s absorbing enough to distract from flu-y aches and fever. I find something fresh each time through, and I’ve yet to read it in more than one sitting.

In the year 1954, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, come to Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to investigate an unexplained disappearance. Multiple murderess Rachel Solando is loose somewhere on this barren island, despite having been kept under constant surveillance in a locked, guarded cell. As a killer hurricane bears relentlessly down on the island, hints of radical experimentation and covert government machinations add darker, more sinister shades to an already bizarre case. Because nothing at Ashecliffe Hospital is remotely what it seems.

Shutter Island begins with U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule arriving on the island just ahead of the storm. Their characters are standard—they’re jaded, seen-it-all professional types, who warm to one another when faced with an absurd situation. They’re strangely likable, but I may feel this way because I picture Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo per the movie adaptation. (Stick with what works, right?)

The mystery around the missing woman, Rachel Solando, is a locked-room story. There’s no way she could have gotten out on her own, so why was she allowed to escape and where is she now? Even though she’s their mission, most of the book isn’t about Rachel. As they speak more with Dr. Cawley, who heads up Ashecliffe, the book shifts to a surprisingly thoughtful inquiry into the treatment of the criminally insane. Set in 1954, Lehane’s asylum makes use of procedures that are barbaric and cruel by modern standards. Dr. Cawley is the rare dissenter:

“The old school,” Cawley said, “believes in shock therapy, partial lobotomies, spa treatments for the most docile patients. Psychosurgery is what we call it. The new school is enamored of psychopharmacology. It’s the future, they say. Maybe it is. I don’t know.” […]
“Which school are you?” Teddy asked gently.
“Believe it or not, Marshal, I believe in talk therapy, basic interpersonal skills. I have this radical idea that if you treat a patient with respect and listen to what he’s trying to tell you, you just might reach him.”
Another howl. Same woman, Teddy was pretty sure. It slid between them on the stairs and seemed to spike Cawley’s attention.
“But these patients?” Teddy said.
Cawley smiled. “Well, yes, many of these patients need to be medicated and some need to be manacled. No argument. But it’s a slippery slope. Once you introduce the poison into the well, how do you ever get it out of the water?” (96-97)

The more time Teddy and Chuck spend on the island and the more mysteries they uncover, the more they start to wonder whether they’ll be allowed to walk away in the end. What makes this book scary isn’t the mystery or the layered conspiracy theories—it’s the setting. That Teddy and Chuck might have to spend more time than strictly necessary in Ashecliffe is unimaginable. Cawley professes a belief in treating patients humanely, but the other doctors don’t seem to share this view. And with a hurricane in full force, Teddy and Chuck can’t leave the island…

(Scroll down below the rating for spoilers and why you should read the book even if you’ve seen the movie.)

Overall: 4.7 Shutter Island is well-crafted and manages to be entertaining and moving in between jump scares.

Translation: Read it. Just block out a few hours first—this is a hard one to put down.

(Scroll for spoilers…)




Mini-Review for People Who’ve Seen the Movie
The Book is Still Good Even If You Know What’s Coming

People who complain about Shutter Island say: “I knew he was a patient the whole time!” like that’s a bad thing. If you see this story as a set-up for a twist/reveal, I can see how you’d be disappointed to learn Teddy’s status during a non-dramatic moment, but Shutter Island is the rare book that isn’t diminished by knowing the ending in advance.

On an initial read, the chief conflict is Teddy vs. Ashecliffe Hospital. On a second reading, the struggle is Teddy vs. his illness and this conflict’s place in a larger discussion: how to humanely treat violent sufferers of mental illness. Set in 1954, Shutter Island takes place in a time before pharmaceutical  treatments were viable or widespread. To the doctors at Ashecliffe, the pre-frontal lobotomy is a standard treatment. Dr. Cawley is pushing back against this barbaric procedure and trying to save Teddy via talk therapy, medication, and compassionate care. What’s terrifying on a second read isn’t that the doctors are trying to catch him, it’s that Teddy’s lobotomy is already scheduled and only two doctors are fighting to prevent it.

With this view, the finale is emotionally devastating in a way it can’t be when the fast-paced “mystery” holds the spotlight. Teddy’s cure and subsequent relapse (which the movie inexplicably makes ambiguous) packs a nasty wallop. Teddy’s and Chuck’s true natures are casually hinted at throughout the novel, often in interesting ways. Despite the bleakness, it’s fun to catch the hints and red herrings.

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