Author: Jeannette DeBeauvoir
Publisher: Minotaur Books
The opening chapter of Jeannette de Beauvoir's chilling novel, Asylum immediately grabbed me and wouldn't let go particularly that it is set in my hometown of Montréal, where I was born and have lived all my life, and deals with an event that was swept under the carpet for too many years.
The yarn interweaves an intricate thriller with factual events that occurred in Québec during the 1950's and 60's wherein orphans known as the Duplessis Orphans or in French, les Orphelins de Duplessis were the victims of a callous, sinister, and horrendous scheme resulting in the deaths of thousands of these poor youngsters as well as other tragic consequences that many had to endure for years after they left the orphanage.
These were orphaned children that were falsely certified as mentally ill by the government of the Province of Québec and confined to psychiatric institutions. And all of this transpired during the time Maurice Duplessis was the Premier of the province thus the name Duplessis Orphans.
The children were generally handed over to Catholic orphanages due to a variety of reasons including those born out of wedlock or where the parents could not properly care for them. The parents were promised that their children would receive a “good education.” Initially, they were placed in orphanages but eventually were transferred to mental institutions as a result of a plan that was developed to obtain additional Federal Government of Canada funding. Apparently, the federal government offered more monetary support for asylums that it did for orphanages and thus the move was primarily based on financial motives.
And that is just the beginning. They may also have been the victims of extremely dangerous experiments conducted by Dr. Ewen Cameron of McGill University's Allan Memorial Institute who apparently received funding from the CIA to carry on his research and to use these children as human guinea pigs.
This haunting tale begins when the public relations director for the mayor of Montréal, Martine LeDuc is appointed as a liaison between the mayor's office and the police department that are investigating the murder of four women. Representing the police department is a young detective, Julian Fletcher and as he and LeDuc put their heads together they uncover some horrific secrets pertaining to Montréal's past involving Duplessis Orphans, psychiatrist Dr. Ewen Cameron, the CIA and a pharmaceutical company. How the story plays out pertaining to the four fictional characters and their connection to each other is too exciting to be spoiled by revealing its ending.
What is truly impressive about de Beauvoir's writing is that she is able to smoothly weave fiction with true events bringing the past to life with evocative settings and passionate characters whom we care deeply as they capture the memories of this dreadful dark era of Québec's past. Not only is it suspenseful, it is also a painful and powerful work that leaves you with the feeling, how could this have happened and could this ever happen again particularly when you read the names of some of the dead that appear at the end of the book entitled “In Memoriam” which is an extract from the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu Hospital burial registry deposited with the Québec Superior Court. In addition, because of some of the mysteries which exist as spaces or gaps surrounding these events, de Beauvoir raises all kinds of questions and plausible answers as what really happened as well as who was involved. And by using fiction rather than solely historical facts she was able to to imagine scenes, dialogue and characters that would throw light on the atrocities committed.