New Books: Asylum (Marcus Low)

Asylum (Marcus Low) book coverReading is what? Fundamental.

One of South Africa’s annual literary highlights is the Open Book Festival. This usually takes place in and around Cape Town during early September, which is the start of spring. They’ve had great guests before, including some amazing international and local authors I would heartily recommend.

I couldn’t go to many events this year. (Unlike the year they invited Neal Stephenson. That year I immediately took the entire festival off work, because, holy shit it’s Neal Stephenson!)

This year, there is one event I will definitely attend. Marcus Low is a friend I’ve known since we were first years together at University, and a few years ago he started working on a novel. And now, here it is! (I had absolutely nothing to do with the whole endeavour. How weird is it that I feel proud?)

The novel, Asylum, is described as a thriller, which seems misleading to me. In a review first published in the Cape Times on 12 May 2017, Karina Szczurek summarised the novel as follows:

Asylum tells the story of Barry Wilbert James. He is locked up under quarantine in the titular asylum. The facility is located in the unforgiving nothingness of the Karoo. The time is the not too distant future (the twenties of our present century) after pulmonary nodulosis – a lethal illness – had affected vast numbers of the population: “We are sick and therefore we are isolated, locked up. We must wait out our days here, and then die – so that the healthy ones, the ones we have forgotten about, may live.”

In a subsequent interview with Karin Schimke, he pointed out that this wasn’t a dystopia so much as a response to what has already happened. She writes:

When I first read the story, I thought it was the most credible – and therefore the most disturbing – dystopian novel I had ever read: a landscape withering under the onslaught of climatic change, the spread of an uncontrollable superbug, the posturing limpness of politicians and the vague helplessness of well-intentioned but under-supported medical staff.

In an interview with Low, I am set right: the novel may be set in the not-too-far future, but it takes its energy from what has already happened. He refers me to a feature article from 2008 in the New York Times, which quotes Siyasanga Lukas, an inmate of the Jose Pearson TB Hospital in Port Elizabeth, where patients with multi-drug resistant strains of tuberculosis were kept behind high security fences which they often tried, and sometimes succeeded in, breaching in order to be with their families for Christmas and other special occasions.

“I’ve seen people die and die and die,” Lukas is quoted as saying. “The only discharge you get from this place is to the mortuary.”

So much for dystopia. (Custody and consultation)

The novel was also reviewed in the Journal of Public Health Policy. This review explains the medical and social history of the novel in more detail, particularly:

In the early 1960s, South African public health authorities developed an extensive program of involuntary quarantine that removed those with MDR-TB from their homes and incarcerated them in facilities that are often much as described in Low’s book. At its peak, the Ministry of Health detained 1,700 people in substandard facilities, said to be similar to prisons, sometimes without treatment.

In response to this review, the Director of the Office of AIDS & TB Research at the South African Medical Research Council tweeted his approval:

(Mr Abdullah is a former CEO of the South African National AIDS Council.)

I heartily recommend the book. I expected to like it, but when I finished it I was surprised by how much.

You can buy the electronic version on Kindle. Or, if you can, pay a visit to the Book Lounge or another independent bookshop and pick up a copy.

LTR Karina Szczurek, Carl Frode Tiller, Marcus Low, and Elina Hirvonen
LTR Karina Szczurek, Carl Frode Tiller, Marcus Low, and Elina Hirvonen

For bonus points, you can read some of Marcus’s technical work on the subject of tuberculosis treatment in the 2017 Pipeline Report.