Review: Nights in the asylum

Nights in the asylum

Book review: Nights in the asylum by Carol Lefevre

It was suggested by my supervising lecturer that I read this novel. Last week we had the author as the guest speaker at our regular fortnightly seminar. These are usually critiquing sessions where we try to help each other with the novels we are each writing for our Masters of Arts. Carol, a quietly spoken author talked to us for nearly two hours, going into details of how she went about the writing of this and her subsequent novel. I found her discussion on the inspiration of each work to be very interesting, and a  major work can stem from a simple thing such as a photograph. Interestingly, my own idea for my current novel came from a photograph.

The word “asylum” in the title has great significance. All three main characters in the story are seeking a different form of asylum, mirroring the differing meanings of the word. Miri, the main character, is seeking sanctuary from the turmoil of a failed marriage and the death of a teenage daughter. Aziz, on the run after escaping from a detention centre, is seeking political asylum. Suzette and her baby are seeking refuge from an abusive, violent husband. All three are thrown together by circumstances into the same house in an unnamed mining town in outback Australia.

One of the most intriguing elements of this novel is the constantly shifting point of view. Each section or chapter (some are short, others quite long) is headed with a name of one of the characters, mostly the major three (but sometimes even minor characters for a few pages). Each section has the story told from the point of view of the character named in the title of the section. It sounds like a complicated way of writing, but it is wonderfully effective. By dipping into the heads of each character in depth like this we get a much deeper understanding of the particular mental turmoil and physical torments faced by that character. We also gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for how they perceive other characters in the story. A very clever technique and masterfully handled by the author. It is a technique I initially grappled with and rejected when writing my novel. I knew the pitfalls and knew my skills were not equal to the task. (Read more here.)

Another major element of the story worth mentioning here is a device known as the flashback. Many writers love this technique and it can be overused and used poorly. This author has used flashback to great effect, filling in details from the past and helping the reader to more fully understand each character’s strengths and weaknesses.

There are many other wonderful aspects of this novel and I can only touch on some briefly.

  • The powerful mining town mentality of the townspeople comes through strongly.
  • It is worth reading just for the beautiful use of language.
  • The sense of isolation for all three main characters is a brooding presence throughout.
  • A sense of the inevitability of the ending carries the reader along – not wanting it to happen, but resigned to the fact that it must end that way.

Overall, a brilliantly written work, told with compassion and finesse. And it’s an entertaining read as well.


Lefevre, Carol, 2007, Nights in the asylum, Random House Australia, North Sydney