The Devil’s Sanctuary by Marie Hermanson was a book that I kept picking up and putting down again. The reference to Shutter Island on the blurb wasn’t doing much for me and neither was the promise of a twin swap story. I shouldn’t really read blurbs. Many of the library books I devoured when I was growing up came from the pre-blurb age and I often had absolutely no idea what I was about to read. This was no bad thing as my current gripe about blurbs is that they give too much away. Admittedly the twin swap comes early on in the book but, to be honest, a bit of suspense would have made the book more appealing. In the end it was an enjoyable read and, although not a genre I normally read, there was enough suspense to keep me turning the page.
Daniel goes to visit his bipolar brother, Max, in a Swiss institution and is persuaded by him to take his place while Max goes and tracks down some money due to him which will secure his release. Daniel realises his brother isn’t coming back and staff and patients at the hospital refuse to believe his story that he is the innocent twin. He soon realises something is amiss in the place and that the institution has a nightmarish underbelly that prevents patients from interacting with the outside world.
This is a claustrophobic book with a strong sense of menace throughout. Even as Daniel arrives at the institution, you’re mentally urging him not to stay the night in the place. The premise is slightly unbelievable. If you look so like your twin, and Daniel has a history of being mistaken for the unstable Max, then your guard would have been up as soon as your brother suggests an identity swap. However, that aside, once Daniel realises his situation the book is very good at portraying the nightmarish quality of institution’s regime.
The book is written (and translated) in a clear, matter-of-fact way which works well in relation to the subject matter. We’re not reading a gothic mystery but a modern take on a theme in literature: twins or people who bear a close resemblance to another person swapping places. Like in The Man in the Iron Mask and the Tale of Two Cities we are presented with a good versus evil battle, which to my mind isn’t quite resolved. But it was an interesting book and something different from my usual fare.
Thanks to Little Brown for my copy of the book. The translation was by Neil Smith.