Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

While cleaning out bookshelves in preparation for a trip to my parents' place (and therefore the certainty of bringing home a box full of books graciously donated to me by my mother), I came upon Shutter Island.  It perhaps says something about my current ability to stay up on pop culture that I had to ask my 16 year old daughter, "Hey, didn't they make a movie called Shutter Island?  What's it about?",  to make sure that my book and that movie were the same.  Once she confirmed (so at least I'm not completely unaware!), I decided it would be my next read, on the very remote chance I might actually make it to the movies.

Shutter Island tells the tale of US Marshall Teddy Daniels.  He and his partner Chuck Aule were called out to Shutter Island, a hospital for the criminally insane, to investigate the escape of a prisoner named Rachel Soldano.  It is in the years after World War II, and Daniels feels haunted by his experiences liberating the concentration camps.  He is also mourning the death of his wife, Dolores, two years before in a fire.  While he was sent to the island to investigate the escape, he jumped at the assignment because Shutter Island is the place where Andrew Laeddis, the man that Daniels believes started the fire that killed his wife, is being held.  Daniels plans to execute his own justice on Laeddis-the ultimate justice.

I've never read Lehane before, though I did see the movie of Mystic River.  I suppose that should have prepared me for the dark nature of the story.  Shutter Island is seriously creepy!  I mean, take an old fort on an isolated island, add criminally insane patients who have done unspeakable things, mix in a hurricane, marinate it in reminders of the horrors of the camps, and you create a pretty twisted sort of mood.  At times this thriller feels almost supernatural, but in the end we discover just how real it is.

I found the discussions on the state of psychiatry at that time in our history really interesting.  Remember, the setting was somewhere 15 or so years in advance of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,  so conditions could be pretty deplorable.  Dr. Cawley, the chief of staff, had some pretty liberal ideas about the barbarity of lobotomies and shock therapy, but he was in the minority.  Daniel's reflections on liberating the concentration camps, and the things he had seen in the war, were also really interesting.  I'm not sure I've ever read a piece of fiction that told the story of the camps from the liberators point of view, and while that was not necessarily central to this story it did add to the general mood.

I am not surprised that they made a movie from this novel.  Lehane's writing style is pretty cinematic, with concise descriptions, evocative settings, and emotional moments that just beg to be played out on the big screen.  When I teach writing to my students, we work a lot on a concept called " show, don't tell", and if Lehane were in my class he'd get a big fat A+.  Even the necessary background information on the debates going on in psychiatry at the time of the novel are written in such a way that they create a picture for the reader-though I suppose it helps to have read/seen works like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to get a true sense.

Saying any more about the plot would only lead to major spoilers and angry readers, though I will say that the resolution of the book did remind me of another movie, and if you've read Shutter Island I bet you know which one!  If you haven't, and you like creepy thrillers, you should!


  1. I have not read it, but am going to!! I actually really liked the movie!!!

  2. Usually when I hear about a great movie, I will go out and buy the book and skip the movie. This is definitly on my list of "read the book, skip the movie"!

  3. Love the book; love the movie, but it was necessary to pay attention early on..huh?

  4. Hello, new follower and wanted to say hi.

    The last creepy novel I read was "The Angel's Game" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon - however I love his prose.

  5. I've given you award over here at my blog. :)

  6. I have wanted to read this book ever since seeing the movie!

  7. I loved the book - thought the movie was ok. Loved the book Mystic River and hated the movie....

    go figure :D

  8. It was definitely creepy! The atmosphere created by the author plus the whole storm/hurricane settings totally add more to the effect. I really need to go watch the movie now but I think, since I've read the book, it won't be as surprising anymore. But hey, who can resist Leonardo on big screen, eh? ;)


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