Iris Dunleavy is a bright, independent woman whose husband decides she is not a proper, respectful wife. This means always being obedient to his every wish, including his cruel treatment of his slaves on a Virginia plantation in the middle of the Civil War. But he is rich and well-respected as a successful businessman and community member, so for her unnamed crime, she is tried, convicted, and sent to a private mental institution on a small Florida island.
Immediately she meets a woman who swallows anything she can get into her mouth, a young boy who believes he is suffering from madness because of a particular act he can’t stop repeating, and a compassionate chef who sees more than he dare comment upon. All have moments of seeming to be quite sane, but Iris is unable to figure out what sets each off in his or her own mad pattern. She is attracted to Ambrose, a traumatized soldier who suffers from violent outbreaks and who can only be calmed by objects and sounds conveying the appearance and sound of the color blue. Iris hates the doctor who is treating her, seeing him for what he really is, and which the reader will discover in good time, but only after receiving a primitively brutal type of therapy treatment. It is no surprise that feisty Iris wants to escape, a seemingly impossible fantasy that has an amazing, haunting, but spirited, finale.
It has been ten years since this reviewer read Kathy Hepinstall’s novel, The House of Gentle Men, and her style is now even better – flowing with rhythms of brutality, tenderness, eeriness, sensuality, sensitivity, and so much more. A unique, excellent historical novel!