Asylum by Marcus Low Legend Press April 15th 2019
Barry James is detained in a quarantine facility in the blistering heat of the Great Karoo. Here he exists in two worlds: the unforgiving reality of his incarceration and the lyrical landscapes of his dreams.
He has cut all ties with his previous life, his health is failing, and he has given up all hope. All he has to cling to are the meanderings of his restless mind, the daily round of pills and the journals he reluctantly keeps as testimony to a life once lived.
And then there’s an opportunity to escape.
We met Barry James, incarcerated in a treatment facility in the middle of a South African desert, his life ruled by a vile lung disease that will end his life. It is three years in the future, 2023, and the world appeared different from the one in which we now reside but somehow it also felt like taking a step back in time, Barry’s lung disease similar to TB, its victims also incarcerated but with one difference, many would survive, in Barry’s case he would not.
So how did Barry accept his fate, and how did he face each day knowing it could be his last? This was the premise in which Low based his book, Barry’s thoughts tumbled out in the form of notebooks, as they revealed glimpses of a troubled past, of a man that was a bit of a loner. His interactions with other patients were limited, almost as if he had drawn within himself, perhaps the only way he could cope.
What impressed me most was that Low never gave much away, either about Barry’s past, his age, his family. He gave us mere hints, made us think, and read between the lines to fill in the gaps, to piece together who Barry was. I don’t think I ever worked him out completely, but I don’t think that was ever Low’s intention to give us a full, rounded and open character. What he did give us was a man at odds with the world, and most importantly with himself. His musing, his dreams were, I felt, his way of coming to terms with his past, his illness and to hopefully make peace and accept his fate.
For all its quietness, and deep thinking, Asylum also had its dramatic moments, like small interludes, that jolted us out of our thoughtfulness, made us leap up and take notice.
Low exposed us to the natural elements of the African Karoo, its great expanse, the heat, the dust, the rain, the need for survival. He gave us the merest hint of politics, of a changing world that you somehow knew would impact on the insular world of Barry and his fellow patients. The consequences were not quite what you expected but profound and moving, Low’s narrative poignant, eloquent and devastating, that left me thoughtful, unsure of how it made me feel. A step away after the turn of the final page provided clarity and an appreciation for an author and his quiet, understated and masterful prose, a novel that was self assured and a pleasure to read.
I would like to thank Legend Press for a copy of Asylum to read and review and fro inviting My Bookish Blogspot to participate in the blogtour.
About the author
Marcus Low is a Cape Town-based writer and public health specialist. He completed a MA in creative writing at the University of Cape Town in 2009 – for which he wrote an early draft of ‘asylum’. He previously worked as Policy Director at the Treatment Action Campaign, an influencial South African civil society organisation that advocates for the rights and interests of people living with and affected by tuberculosis (TB) and HIV. He remains involved in public health policy both in South Africa and internationally. His novel ‘asylum’ was in part inspired by the incarceration of patients with drug-resistant forms of TB in South Africa circa 2008 – something he directly encountered in his work. He was born in Vryburg, South Africa in 1979.
Follow Marcus on Twitter @marcuslowx