Review: Erin Kelly’s new novel staggers at an asylum

“Stone Mothers: a Novel” (Minotaur), by Erin Kelly

An imposing former mental asylum reconfigured as a high-end spa and apartment building looms over a remote England town and over the life of Marianne Thackeray in this gothic-inspired thriller that languishes in over-plotting.

At one time, Nazareth Mental Hospital was the main employer in Nusstead, England. Originally called the East Anglia Pauper Lunatic Asylum, the hospital was built during the Victorian era. Its closing during the 1980s plunged the town into an economic downturn from which it — and many families — have never recovered.

The person responsible for the hospital’s closing was Helen Greenlaw, the roundly hated chair of the local health authority whose reputation for ruthlessness rivaled that of Margaret Thatcher. When they were teenagers, Marianne and her boyfriend, Jesse Brame, stumbled across forgotten medical records in the abandoned hospital proving that Helen was once a patient there. They used these records to blackmail the rising politician.

That was 30 years ago and the decades have been good to Helen, who is now an MP — member of Parliament — and Marianne, who is an architecture lecturer and married to a loving man. Jesse hasn’t fared as well, barely paying his bills or child support.

Marianne has spent decades trying to escape her background. But now she’s back in Nusstead, helping to care for her mother who is suffering from dementia. Consumed by jealousy at how well Helen and Marianne have done, Jesse tries to bully his former girlfriend into blackmailing Helen once again. If not, he will reveal Marianne’s past as a blackmailer to her husband and emotionally fragile daughter.

“Stone Mothers” alternates in time as it explores the past and present of the three characters. The flashbacks of Helen are the most gripping as it reveals why she shut the mental hospital and why she is trying to change the outdated and cruel “lunacy laws” that allowed her parents to put her in an asylum when she was a rebellious teenager. But neither Marianne nor Jesse are interesting enough to sustain their stories. That former hospital renamed Park Royal Manor is hardly threatening.

The dense plot of “Stone Mothers” offers few surprises, dull-edged twists and uninspired characters. “Stone Mothers” is so unlike Kelly’s 2017 outstanding outing, “He Said/She Said,” a tense, gripping psychological thriller about a marriage and obsessions set against the background of a solar eclipse.