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  • Asylum
  • Written by Andre Alexis
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780771006708
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Alexis’s long-awaited second novel follows his award-winning Childhood.

Set in Ottawa during the Mulroney years, Asylum is André Alexis’s sweeping, edged-in-satire, yet deeply serious tale of intertwined lives and fortunes, of politics and vain ambition, of the building of a magnificent prison, of human fallibility, of the search for refuge, of the impossibility of love, and of finding home. Whether he is taking us into the machinations of a government office or into the mysterious workings of the human heart, Alexis is always alert to the humour and the profound truth of any situation. His cast of characters is eccentric and unforgettable, all recognizable in one way or another as aspects of ourselves or people we know well. At the centre of the story, which covers almost a decade, is a visionary project to build an ideal prison, a perfect metaphor for the purest aspects of artistic ambition and for all that is great and flawed in the world.

André Alexis is a true original, one of the most talented and astute writers writing in Canada today. This dazzling novel is filled with tragedy, dry wit, intellectual grist. It is playful, linguistically accomplished, and psychologically profound. Its yearnings constitute the highest level of human concerns and pursuits. Alexis has written The Great Canadian Novel, with a twist.

From the Hardcover edition.


Little had changed and yet everything had changed. On this, the anniversary of his attempted suicide, WalterBarnes sat in one of the two chairs he nowowned, readingone of his two books. Of the two, a Bible and the Arden King Lear, he had chosen the Bible, not for any consciously spiritual reasonbut rather because he found it beautiful and amusing, in particular the Pentateuch, of which he was reading Leviticus.He was not aware that a year had passed since he’d first triedto kill himself. If he had been, he would not have known whether to rejoice or mourn; though, in any case, he might well have chosen to mark the event in this way: reading, at home.

The year had been dull, unworthy of commemoration. He had, for the most part, kept to himself and shunned contact with anyone outside the university. Much of his life had been conducted within the, what was it, three square miles that had for boundaries: the university, the canal, Catherine Street, and the river. And time passed without him being aware of it.

Yes, but this home of his was a residue of the year that had quietly passed. Time had passed, but it had taken with it so much that had seemed important: telephone, television, cable, credit cards, magazines, newspapers, glasses, goblets, snifters, shoes, clothes, books, books, books . . .

He had not chosen the life of an ascetic. It had not been in him to choose one style of life over another. Rather, he had decided not to have his house full of things that would eventually have to be dispersed. He expected to succeed at suicide, sooner or later, and he wished to be ready for his death at a moment’s notice.
The two books he’d kept hadn’t been kept so much as found. They had fallen between the headboard of his bed and the wall. He’d found them in May, after months of living in anticipatory austerity; anticipation of death, yes, but also, after his third failed suicide, of life. He read them for distraction, and for amusement, and as a way to pass the time without company.

So, little had changed?

He had changed, it’s true, but in the scheme of things that was nothing at all. And he had not changed all that much. He still taught at Carleton, the books he needed kept on the shelves in his office. He still lived in his house on 3rd, however denuded it now was. He still regretted, though less poignantly, his failings, his childhood, his previous life.

So, what had changed?

For one thing, he now realized that death didn’t want him any more than life did. Who knew that his first attempt at suicide would be his most resolute? The second attempt was a sad debacle. It was mid-March, but he had convinced himself the river would not be cold enough to do what he wanted of it, so he bought rat poison, enough to kill a townful of rats. He made his own bread, sifting a quarter cup of strychnine into the flour and kneading it into something that could, if one were kind, be called a loaf. He then made himself spaghetti bolognese, boiling the pasta in water, to which he’d added a spoonful of strychnine. He fried the tomatoes, bacon, and rosemary in a cup of olive oil, to which he’d added two tablespoons of strychnine.

He would have eaten this final meal, but two things happened. First, after setting the table and putting the sticky pasta and thick sauce onto a plate, he went to the door to his backyard. He went to take a final, sentimental look at the night sky, but he was suddenly overcome by the most violent stomach pain. It was all he could do to crawl to the living roomwhere he lay, in agony, for hours, thinking death was upon him.

As he was in the living room, Walter did not hear the neighbour’s dachshund, Otto, come into the house. And so it was Otto, climbing up onWalter’s chair,who ate most of the spaghetti. This was particularly sad, because Walter liked his neighbours, Mr.and Mrs.Molnar, and had been friendly enough with Otto to gain the dog’s trust. (While he himself groaned in agony, Walter heard Otto’s final, faint bark, and he’d thought it appropriate that this should be the last sound he heard on Earth, though, as it turned out, his were the last sounds Otto heard.) So when, at four in the morning, he discovered the poor dachshund’s corpse on his dining-room floor, Walter was devastated. He was devastated, and he had no idea what to do. He could not bring himself to tell the Molnars that their beloved dachshund had died in his stead.

Couldn’t you have been more careful?

Couldn’t you have eaten the rat poison before you went out?

Why do you want to die,Wally?

had died in his house, in fact

Otto always loved your kitchen,Wally.

And, yet, it seemed wrong to lie about Otto’s end.

He decided not to speak of it. He wrapped Otto in newspaper, put him in a white plastic bag, and left him out with the refuse. He threw out his pots and pans (along with the dishes and silverware he’d used for his final meal), and he was as kind to his neighbours as he could be, commiserating with Mrs. Molnar in particular, genuinely sorry for her distress during the weeks when they searched for their dog. He would, he resolved, be kind to them to his dying day.

From the Hardcover edition.
Andre Alexis

About Andre Alexis

Andre Alexis - Asylum

Photo © Sari Ginsberg

André Alexis was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. His debut novel, Childhood, won the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Award, and was shortlisted for The Giller Prize and the Rogers Communications Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Alexis is the host and creator of CBC Radio’s Skylarking. He lives in Toronto.


Praise for Childhood
“André Alexis is a genuine talent.” — Richard Bachmann, A Different Drummer Books

“Alexis [has an] astute understanding of the madly shimmering, beautifully weaving patterns created by what we have agreed to call memory.” — Ottawa Citizen

“Although Canada boasts many promising young writers, the most promising of all may be André Alexis. . . .” — London Free Press

“Alexis already knows what it takes many grey wise men a lifetime to realize: that neither memory nor history is a straight line.” — Edmonton Journal

From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Discuss the novel’s title, Asylum, and the many senses of the word’s meaning that can apply to various aspects of the book.

2. The book is narrated by Mark Ford, yet we are rarely aware of his presence, except at the beginning and the end. We also accept that there are many things that happen that Mark Ford cannot know about in detail. Discuss the structure of the book and what the author had in mind.

3. As Mark Ford looks back to his home in Ottawa, he thinks, “Time itself changes the city while our back is turned. And memory, as it perishes, takes with it the city I lived in, turning it to a place of imperfectly recollected monuments.” Talk about what the author reveals in the book about the process of memory and the meaning of home.

4. The human stories in the book are universal, yet the author situates them very specifically in Ottawa. Discuss the ways in which Ottawa, a character itself in the novel, is integral to the story.

5. At the end of the book, Stanley and Beatrice host a party before their departure, to which most of the characters are invited. “For a few hours it was as if a new city had sprung up around them, their city, one to which they actually belong.” Franklyn, a lonely isolated child, finds himself part of a community when he joins politics. Discuss other examples of how the ideas of community and/or being an outsider are used in the novel.

6. Three of the characters in the book lose a parent at an early age: Daniel, Franklyn, and Stanley. Discuss the resulting alienation between Franklyn and his father, Stanley, and his mother, Eleanor, and how Francois and his son deal with the death of Michelle.

7. Throughout the novel the author asks questions about God, morality, and the concept of sin. How do his various characters struggle with these questions?

8. Runstedt, Franklyn, Mary, and Edward are all faced with moral dilemmas. Discuss the nature of these.

9. The idea of the beautifully designed utopian prison, Alba, at last gives Franklyn his life’s purpose. Discuss the ways in which Franklyn’s character changes as he attempts to win favour for this massive project.

10. Discuss the ways in which the idea of Alba gives Franklyn his purpose only to destroy him. What could Franklyn have done differently that would have changed the course of his life? What do you think the author is trying to say?

11. Paul’s conviction that his wife Louise is having an affair gradually threatens to destroy him. Describe the irony of what Paul eventually discovers.

12. There are many different kinds of questions about forgiveness in the novel. What does it mean? Is it truly possible? How is it distinct from mercy? Discuss the ways in which these concepts play a part in the lives of the characters in the book and determine the course of their lives.

13. The concept of sin and the question of belief in God are recurring themes in this book. Does a belief in God necessitate a belief in sin? Discuss the role of religion and belief in the book as it directly or indirectly comes into play.

14. Near the end of the book, Franklyn feels Edward has betrayed him. What is Edward’s side of the story?

15. Betrayal — of someone else, of one’s self — occurs in many ways in the novel. Discuss examples of these occurrences. Do you think the author is saying that betrayal of one kind or another is something we are all destined for as human beings?

16. What is the relationship between ambition and gullibility in the novel?

17. Mary is caught between two worlds. One is in the inner workings of a political office; the other is in the Caribbean past of her family — her grandmother’s death and her sudden inheritance. Discuss what ethical positions Mary considers to help her navigate within these changing worlds.

18. Walter’s life and sexual conquests have remained a mystery to himself, bringing him to a crisis point. What discoveries does he make that enable him to find love in the end?

19. The author has chosen to write this novel in a formal and elegant style. How does this enhance the wit and wisdom of the story and the characters?

20. Asylum is a novel of ideas that brings in art, religion, philosophy, and classical references, all mixed with human truths. Discuss the breadth and originality of this novel and how it might be considered The Great Canadian Novel with a twist.

  • Asylum by André Alexis
  • April 07, 2009
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction
  • Emblem Editions
  • $17.95
  • 9780771006708

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