Shutter Island is a master class on how to tell a personal, affecting story in a novel you’ll find shelved under ‘thriller’ but is actually so much more. It begins as a mystery, but morphs into a physiological nightmare for its protagonist, with twists and turns aplenty, and a finale that will leave readers reeling.
US Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule arrive at Ashecliff Hospital on Shutter Island in 1954, tasked with locating an escaped patient, Rachel Solando, a housewife who drowned her three children. The scenario is troubling for several reasons: how could she have possibly escaped a locked room and traversed the facility without being spotted; and where could she have possibly fled to? This is an island, after all, with sea in all directions. Even more mysterious are the series of clues Rachel left around the island – but what do they lead to? Teddy and Chuck find the Ashecliff Hospital staff reluctant to share information: patient files are sealed, and Rachel’s therapist was allowed to leave on vacation despite his patient’s escape. The Marshals begin to wonder whether this is a larger conspiracy than they ever could have imagined – but Teddy’s personal quest prohibits him from leaving the island. He’s certain the arsonist he has been hunting is an inmate of Ashecliffe, and he is determined to find him. Assuming he lives long enough to discover his whereabouts: because the longer Teddy and Chuck are on the island, the more it feels like they’re guinea pigs in a spectacular psychological experiment.
Lehane is a master of the give and take. Revelations are quickly followed up by blockades and wild swerves. Just as Teddy begins to question reality, so do the readers. It’s a dangerous game Lehane plays, and a fine balancing act, because lean too far one way and the plot becomes impossibly unwieldy. And just when you think he’s corkscrewed Shutter Island to the nth degree, he delivers one final twist.
Meticulous and exhilarating, Shutter Island is one of Lehane’s finest novels. I’m kicking myself I didn’t read it sooner, but simultaneously annoyed I can’t experience it for the first time again.