Book Review – Shutter Island

I understand that writing this is a little odd, on several fronts, but this is the first in what will be a four-part series where you get to see the reviews I sent my MFA mentor this semester. Shutter Island was the first book I reviewed. I have chosen not to go through an edit the reviews in any way, despite the fact that I am posting these after I’ve received feedback from my mentor. So you’ll see it the same way you see all my reviews – essentially unedited.

The human psyche is built both to avoid that which frightens us – and to seek it out. Horror movies and psychological thrillers will keep people (including myself) awake at night, imagining up nameless horrors – and yet, they do terrifically well at the box office. Add in a perpetual hint that something is, as Miss Clavel says, “not quite right”…and you drag people in.

Lehane’s novel, Shutter Island, begins innocently enough at Asheville, a correctional facility and hospital for the criminally insane. The narrator, US Marshal Teddy Daniels, and his partner Chuck Aule have been sent in to investigate the break-out of patient Rachel Solando, a task that is unheard of, and is unlikely to lead to a clean escape, given the hospital’s island location. It becomes rapidly apparent that not all is as it seems on Shutter Island – and the truth of every person and every word becomes suspect, particularly that of the narrator. The book chronicles his descent into the case, and into his own troubled mind and past – and deals with regression, trauma, and how a human mind compensates for the world around it.

Daniels is a believable and sympathetic character, despite his hard-boiled appearance. Through his coping with his wife’s death in an apartment fire and his consequent ulterior motives for coming to Asheville, it is easy to root for him. Revenge and closure are concepts that the average reader can grasp. The truly fascinating work is done around Daniels, however. The final twist in the plot is hinted at throughout the novel, if a clever mind can remember them by then. Tiny imperfections in the storytelling – from Daniels, rather than Lehane – begin the process of questioning the increasingly unreliable narrator. The paranoia of the patients leaked into Daniels and through him into us – and we become convinced that the hospital is leading Daniels on a wild goose chase. To where, however, remains foggy until the end.

The use of foreshadowing and ciphers, clues and discrepancies, and all of Daniels’ quirks in how he sees the world kept me turning pages as I struggled to make sense of all the things he saw – and begin to question whether he was seeing things or if he wanted to be seeing things…or if that was what the hospital wanted him – and me – to think. Daniels was warned, time and time again, to not trust the doctors, that they would twist their meanings. Therefore, as Daniels doubts, the reader doubts. But who can truly know where the truth lies? Up until the final sentence of the book, “’Yeah,’ Teddy said. ‘We are, aren’t we?’”, I wasn’t convinced of the ending. I still am not entirely sure as to what happened, because the sentence is written in such a way that it could mean more than one thing.

Not only has Lehane written the book with phenomenal acuity to a reader’s methods of deduction, but he’s added in bits of the ciphers as well, and not solved all of them up front – leaving one until the very last possible moment to decrypt. At no point does he treat his readers like he’s stupid; this isn’t always the case in writing and I consider it a breath of fresh air to see Lehane trusting my intellect.

Lehane’s writing in a mechanical sense, however, is inconsistent. Some sentences are clear and concise, others go on for a paragraph and leave the meaning vague. In a novel that demands high reader clarity and intuition, Lehane cannot afford to lose us – and yet, there are occasions where he does. Moments when it’s hard to tell who’s speaking, whether or not someone’s been contradicted, half a page of description… While this may also be a ploy to keep the reader questioning the characters, it also can make the book difficult to follow. It does not detract from the book’s overall enjoyability, but it is of note.

When a book makes you want to re-read it as soon as you finish it, there is a certain inarguable “good” quality to that. Shutter Island certainly possesses this quality in spades. The book makes you think, makes you wonder, makes you criticize, and then leaves you to ponder whether or not you have any legs to stand on in the argument. It taps into the very nature of who we are, and makes us question it. From the tiniest of hints about a character’s true nature given to you at the beginning of the novel, to its reveal at the end, I want to go through the words with a fine-toothed comb and piece out every hint Lehane left for me – and advise anyone with a taste for the paranoid and paranormal to do the same.


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