Review | Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

21686TITLE: Shutter Island
AUTHOR: Dennis Lehane
RELEASE DATE: April 15, 2003
GENRE: Thriller

Shutter Island is a tense psychological thriller by Dennis Lehane, turned household name by its film adaptation.  This novel is a clichéd but extremely entertaining addition to the genre.  

In 1954, US Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck, visit Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane to investigate a breakout.  Stranded on Shutter Island, Rachel Solando can’t have strayed far.  When the facts simply don’t add up, Teddy suspects foul play, but a brewing hurricane bars their exit.  Forced to dig deeper, Teddy soon realises that a far more sinister purpose has led him here.  What secrets are hiding in Ward C?  Is Ashcliffe the link between Teddy and a haunting figure from his past?  Will Teddy and Chuck make it off Shutter Island alive?

Teddy is a damaged but likeable character.  Balancing out his charismatic new partner, he uses his natural bluntness to play “bad cop”.  Recurring dreams of his dead wife trigger his repressed guilt and warn him not to trust first impressions.

Despite Teddy’s guardedness, Lehane grants us access to his vulnerable inner thoughts.  I found that his many flaws, coping mechanisms, and detailed backstory made him an empathetic and believable protagonist.  I trusted his intuition and intelligence to drive the plot and desperately wanted him to succeed.  The descriptions of Teddy’s chronic migraine headaches were my favourite part of this novel.

Another long pull of the sawteeth across the pink folds of his brain, and Teddy had to bit down against a scream and he heard Rachel’s screams in there too with the fire and he saw her looking into his eyes and felt her breath on his lips and felt her face in his hands and as his thumbs caressed her temples and the fucking saw went back and forth through his head – don’ttakethosefuckingpills – and he slammed his palm up to his mouth and felt the pills fly back in there and he chased them with water and swallowed, felt them slide down his oesophagus and he gulped from the glass until it was empty – page 207

Cliché is my one criticism of Shutter Island.  Lunatic asylum thrillers tend to recycle recognisable tropes and Shutter Island is no different.  1. Ashcliffe is isolated from the outside world and barraged by dangerous weather.  2. Evidence suggests that the hospital wardens harbour sinister secrets and can’t be trusted.  3. Teddy feels claustrophobic like a rat in a maze.  4.  Either a sane person is driven insane through gaslighting techniques, or discovers that their reality is the fabrication of an insane mind (similar to “it was all a dream” endings which are a capital ‘L’ literature no-no).  Lehane plays with all of these elements, resulting in an entertaining but unoriginal plot.  However, the compelling character development saves this book.

Despite following a predictable formula, Shutter Island is a riveting read.  The pacing and flow from chapter to chapter is addictive, including a handful of truly memorable moments.  

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