Saturday, 23 April 2011

"Shutter Island," by Dennis Lehane

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

A couple of months ago I watched the film "Shutter Island," and enjoyed it so much that I decided to read the original novel. I was intrigued by the twists of the plot, and wanted to read how it worked on the page. This, in itself, was an interesting experiment, as it is more normal for me to go from book to film (and, almost invariably, prefer the book). Am I more naturally inclined to prefer the book, or do I tend to prefer whichever I discovered first? I watched "Wonder Boys" before I read Michael Chabon's book, and this is a rare instance where I preferred the film.

I think that I am coming to the conclusion that I am not necessarily predisposed to prefer the book - it just seems that way because in most cases I have read the book first. I enjoyed the film of "Shutter Island" more because I came to it first: the plot was new to me; I didn't already have my own idea of the characters, my own image of how they look or how they sound. I could accept Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role, as he wasn't competing with the Teddy Daniels in my head. Maybe if I had read the book first, I would have accepted Leonardo DiCaprio less.

I don't want to comment on plot, as I don't want to give away the twists and turns of the story to anyone who hasn't already seen the film or read the book. But is it worth reading Shutter Island if you have already seen the film and know the twists of the plot? I think so. The time period of the story is a fascinating one, and novel itself is shot through with cold war hysteria and paranoia. The protagonist, Edward (Teddy) Daniels, is a marshal who takes on a case which sends him to a secure psychiatric institution for violent and disturbed patients. Ashecliffe Hospital is run more like a prison than an asylum. The action takes place not only against an oppressive time in society, but also against an uneasy, fraught paradigm change in the way mental illness is treated, as the invasive practice of lobotomy begins to give way to other pharmaceutical methods of treatment.

When I read the book, already knowing the plot, it gave me more opportunity to focus on other aspects of Dennis Lehane's writing, and there was an occasional lyricism of metaphor which grabbed my attention. In particular, an idea on only the first page of the novel appealed to me as a book lover: the book opens with an extract from the journal of a character, Dr Lester Sheehan, in which he writes "time is nothing to me but a series of bookmarks that I use to jump back and forth through the text of my life." This idea takes on greater poignancy as the now ageing Sheehan, who is looking back on the events of the main narrative, "feels as if someone has shaken the book and those yellowed slips of paper, torn matchbook covers and flattened coffee stirrers have fallen to the floor, and the dog-eared flaps have been pressed smooth." Putting aside the lamentable issue of his poor treatment of books (never, never, fold over the corner of a book), I particularly liked this piece of description.

I should also say that I tried reading a bit of "Shutter Island" to our new, nervous cat as I had heard that reading to them can help them get used to you. I deliberately didn't shock her by reading her the (non)sex scene, but the bit I did read turned out to be a bit sweary. I think she prefers Kate Atkinson.

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