Lucas Smith reviews 'Asylum' by John Hughes

Two doors, two characters, two colours – black and white – produce a surfeit of grey in John Hughes's short allegorical novel Asylum. Featuring a variety of forms, including manuals for the officials of the regime, personal letters, political tracts, and an inverted retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden in which fully clothed Adam and Eve arrive by boat and God removes their clothes in anger, Asylum is a powerful allegory of Blake's 'mind forg'd manacles'. The swift propellant of narrative change builds a sense of a larger, orderly world which is for some reason being withheld from view. Snippets of bureaucratic reports which employ a god-like tone pepper the narrative. Hughes, the librarian at Sydney Grammar School, and a previous winner of the New South Wales Premier's Award and the National Biography Award for his collection of autobiographical essays, has Ukrainian heritage, and Asylum, with its subtly drawn themes of displacement, liminality, and cultural forgetting, points towards the refugee experience.

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