News for Readers
The Key by Kathryn Hughes
A hidden note. A lost love. A second chance.
The Key, published by Headline Review, is a fictional novel but is inspired by Kathryn Hughes visit to Denbigh Asylum in North Wales. ‘Known by locals as simply, The Mental, it housed over 1,500 patients at its peak. It’s a vast building situated in acres of lush Welsh countryside with panoramic views of the mountains of Snowdonia.’
After Kathryn Hughes wandered around the derelict building she wrote ‘there was an eerie atmosphere, one of immense sadness and despair. If only walls could talk, I thought.’
Combined with the additional research she garnered through a trip to The National Sound Archives at the British Library in London, Kathryn Hughes created her fictional mental hospital, Ambergate Asylum.
‘Stories of Electroconvulsive Therapy, lobotomies, insulin coma therapy and patients incarcerated for almost the whole of their lives because they were deemed difficult or were a nuisance to their families. A diagnosis of ‘feeble-minded’ was enough to consign someone to an asylum indefinitely.
The patients I write about in The Key are all entirely fictional, but their stories mirror those of the patients who were actually there but never permitted to have a voice until now.’
The Key is a dual timeline story as we are taken back to a day in 1956 when Ellen Crosby arrived at Ambergate County Lunatic Asylum as a student nurse reporting for her first day of duty. Ellen is quite shocked by some of the methods used by the medical staff on the residents of the hospital. The treatment seems quite Dickensian to Ellen and she begins to wonder about what she has let herself in for. With no formal training, Ellen is to learn on the job but the cold-front of mental health care in the 1950s is an eye-opener to Ellen.
Ellen becomes especially fixated on one resident, a young girl of a similar age to Ellen, who is committed by her father. Ellen is unable to see what is wrong with this girl and is openly concerned about the manner in which she is handled. There is a doctor who is working on methods to assist the people under his care but Ellen is not 100% sure that his methods are humane. As time passes Ellen makes a decision that will have a huge impact on the lives of others in future years.
Kathryn Hughes writes beautifully. The narrative just flows as you find yourself getting so caught up in the story. We all have heard the stories of the old institutions and how folk were left in these places and forgotten about for years, many times only leaving in a coffin. Thankfully the attitude to mental health has made huge advances over the years but we must always remember that it wasn’t that long ago when life in these places was a traumatic experience for most involved.
The Key is a compelling and fascinating read, one that will stay with you long after you turn that final page.
I’ll leave you with Lesley Pearse’s words ‘A wonderful, enthralling story; one that I didn’t want to end’
(c) Swirl and Thread
Order your copy online here.