My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What It Takes to Be Human
I could not put the book down until 2:30 a.m...a wonderfully paced and beautifully written story about a young man who is committed to an insane asylum by his (obvious to me) insane parents. There he has to hang on to his sanity while being experimented on with truth serum (sodium pentothal) or insulin injections, followed by relentless and devious interrogations. There is, as well as the criminally insane, a population of conscientious objectors and others whose chief failing seems to be hailing from German or Japanese, Chinese or Russian ethnic backgrounds. Communists and even a Mac-Pap veteran of the Spanish Civil War are memorably included as well as gay men, including former soldiers who are now being punished and "treated". The research is skillfully integrated and may serve as an eye-opener for some readers as to who exactly decides who the criminally insane "element" is and who has the power to put people away without a formal, legal link to the outside world. There is, as we fear, one particularly abusive staff member because there almost always is at least one sadistic bully in the workplace, and/or, in institutions like prisons and asylums with few objective eyes checking in to monitor and punish such behaviours.
Here we have a possibly unreliable narrator whose main ally on the "outside" is a beautiful dipsomaniac who clearly identifies with Sandy Grey as a man the same age as her own son, missing in action in Europe. She gives him a how-to writing guide, paper and pencils and Sandy begins his study of another inmate from an earlier time whose files he has discovered, those of an immigrant Scotsman wrongly accused of murder and summarily executed after a hasty and controversial trial. This case has very clear parallels to his own situation, as he is incarcerated with the threat of lobotomy, cold water hoses, experimental electrocution, castration and other horrors if he doesn't present his own sanity well enough to the attending doctors. And of course, he does go spectacularly off the rails from time to time. Who wouldn't?
It was truly gripping to follow the ravelling and unravelling of young Sandy's mind as he grappled with his own synthesis of reality vs the presentation of reality he had, on good advice from other inmates, to conjure up for the doctors and the Board. If the ending seems a little too neatly tied up with a bow, it's also an intense relief to this reader to know several of the outcomes did come to pass and justice was achieved at last! I'd recommend this for military history buffs, medical personnel and other writers who want to enjoy an interesting novel structure, deeply imagined characters, great Canadian and international historical research and the pleasure of a terrific story, very well-told.
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