Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

What happened to Rachel Solando?  Who is 67?  What is really happening on Shutter Island?

Shutter Island

I don’t usually like book covers taken from movie posters, but I found this copy at a good price.

These vague, confusing questions and more are answered in the book I’m reviewing this week, Dennis Lehane’s psychological thriller Shutter Island.

Shutter Island begins with two U.S. Marshals named Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, who land on the titular Shutter Island in 1954.  The island is the home of the Ashecliffe Hospital, an insane asylum and the Marshals are there to investigate the mysterious (and seemingly impossible) escape of one of the patients.  From there, the mission takes them through a series of clues, twists, and turns in the search for the real truth behind the patient and the hospital itself.

I can’t tell you much more than that, because most of the excitement of the novel comes from the mysteries and surprises in the story.  I know some people like to try to figure out the plot twists in thrillers, but my favourite way to experience books or movies like Shutter Island is to turn off my mind and let the story take over.  That’s the way I recommend reading this book:  you will enjoy the surprises more if you let them come to you, rather than analyzing every single page for hints.

Shutter Island was written by Dennis Lehane, who is probably most well-known for his other books that have been adapted to film, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone.  This is the first book I’ve read by him, but from what I’ve heard, his other books are usually gritty, realistic crime novels, rather than mind-bending mysteries like Shutter Island.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from his style as I began, but I was impressed with his work.  He has a very basic prose that allows the story to unfold without much interference from the author.  Lehane only forces the direction of the story when he has to reveal the internal emotion of Teddy or give us an important flashback.  Another one of Lehane’s strengths as a writer is his use of dialogue.  The conversations between the Marshals is entertaining, but still natural and realistic.  The two characters cuss, joke, and argue just like real adult men would on an island under bizarre circumstances.

While Shutter Island is built around mystery, that is not to say that it is the only reason to read the book.  I like a good plot, but it’s hard to care about a story when none of the characters are interesting.  The two Marshals initially seem to be shallow stereotypes, with Teddy as the intense protagonist and Chuck as the humourous partner, but as the story progresses, the characters reveal the many sides of their personalities.  I had moments where I was more interested in the friendship between Teddy and Chuck than their next plan in the investigation.  Minor characters, such as the doctors, patients, and orderlies in the asylum, are not as developed, but serve to build the ominous atmosphere on the island.  Of course, because the story has so many twists, a reader can expect that some characters might not be everything they seem.

Another aspect in the novel that surprised me was the humour.  Because Shutter Island is a tense story that takes place in an eerie setting, Chuck’s comic relief is a welcome escape from the dark and serious side of the plot.  The whole book is not a comedy, but I found myself laughing just as much as I was grimly focused, reading the details of the case.  The comedy not only works to lighten the mood, but also makes the story more realistic, because many real people would use humour as a defense when faced with the strange, difficult situations in Ashecliffe.

It would be difficult to write this review without mentioning the 2010 film adaptation of Shutter Island.  Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the quality of that movie as I have yet to see it (I wanted to read the book first), but Martin Scorsese directed it, it’s probably in good hands.  I plan on seeing the film soon, because I loved the book so much.  Here is a trailer for the movie:

To conclude, Shutter Island is a fantastic book with interesting characters and a story that will have you turning pages, wondering what will happen next.  The novel’s ending kept me thinking for days afterward, trying to figure out what it all meant and wanting to re-read the whole story all over again.  Because it entertained me from beginning to end, and left me with interesting questions to ponder, I give Shutter Island a solid 4.5 out of 5.

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