The Key

Written by Kathryn Hughes

1956 may not seem like history to many of our readers, but happily the big Victorian lunatic asylums which were still the main provision for the mentally ill and handicapped in Britain in the 1950s have now passed into history. The system was already being questioned in the 1950s, and after the Mental Health Act of 1959 these huge buildings were gradually emptied of their inmates to stand as decaying memorials to a disgraced form of care.

The Key begins in 2006 when a young librarian decides to research the history of the derelict local asylum where her father once worked. Although the story is narrated in two time streams, most of the action and all the power and drama takes place from 1956 to 1958. The 21st– century story is pallid by comparison, and the happy ending (lovers reunited after 50 years) is not very convincing.

The 1950s story is told from the perspective of a student nurse and a teenage patient who both join the asylum near Manchester in the same week. It is a moving tale of ruined lives and frustrated hopes and a system which was tolerated until so recently, and now seems so alien.