Very rarely do I give a book my top rating of five stars, but crikey The Key by Kathryn Hughes definitely deserves five stars. It is a compelling story with flawed and very real characters, but it is more than that. The Key is an important read, reminding us how far we’ve come regarding attitudes and treatment to mental health and vulnerable people, but also how little has changed.
Mainly set in the mid 1950s, The Key focuses on Ambergate Asylum, a fictional psychiatric institute. Hughes was inspired to write the poignant novel when she heard about the true discovery in 1995 of four hundred suitcases forgotten in an attic at the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane. Stored between 1910 and 1960, the suitcases belonged to former patients who gave them up along with their personal belongings when they were admitted. The average stay for a patient at Willard was thirty years, with many patients never leaving.
This heartbreaking truth is vividly reflected in The Key as Hughes intimately shares with us the experiences of Ellen, a student nurse at Ambergate and Amy, a 19-year-old patient. Through the point of view of both characters, we find out how a patient is left to rot in Ambergate following her surviving the Titanic disaster while her newly married husband drowned; and another patient being sent by her sexually abusive father to the asylum once she outgrew her girlhood.
Central to The Key is a brilliantly constructed story that had me hooked. I’m actually really reticent to write anymore about this as I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, but there is a shocking twist involved. All I will say is that it is heartbreaking, tender and had me in tears at the end.
The Key is a tragic read that also portrays the power of human resolve and kindness. It exposes the dismissive, ignorant and sometimes cruel attitude to vulnerable people and mental health in our society’s history which sadly, was actually not so long ago.
I really want to thank NetGalley and Headline Publishing for sending me an advance copy of The Key in return for my honest review. Thank you also for introducing me to Kathryn Hughes, I will definitely be reading more of her books.
Most importantly, thank you to Kathryn Hughes. The Key is such a poignant and important novel; it truly is brilliant.
The Key is available now. I urge you to go and get your copy now.
Publication date of The Key: 6 September 2018.