Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mysteries of Shutter Island

Every time I travel, I pick up a book to read on the plane, because the SkyMall catalog can only amuse one for so long. Earlier this week I flew to Atlanta. (As an aside, it was my sixth trip to the City of Peaches this year; no offense to the place, but I'm over it.) My choice of reading material was Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island. I recently saw the trailer for the upcoming film, and Lehane is one of those writers I keep telling myself I should read, so when I saw the paperback on the shelf at the airport newsstand, I figured I'd give it a try. If nothing else, I thought, it would be good to read a book that was being made into a movie so that I could be one of those snotty people who sniff that "the book was so much better."

Bottom line: I enjoyed Shutter Island a lot. Vivid characters, great dialogue, cool setting. Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing the antagonist, Teddy Daniels, in the movie, and he'll be perfect, as will Ben Kingsley as Dr. Cawley, the head of the mysterious hospital for the criminally insane where the action takes place. Briefly (no spoilers here, I assure you), Daniels is a U.S. Marshall, sent to the hospital/prison to investigate the apparent escape of one of its inmates; we soon discover that the institution has many secrets, and that Daniels himself has ulterior motives for being there. If you've read the book, you know that Shutter Island also has a wicked plot-twisting ending. I shudder (no pun intended) to think what even a fine director like Martin Scorcese will do with it on the silver screen. On the other hand, I'm dying to know what Scorcese will do with it, because then maybe I'll have some idea what the hell that ending is all about.

Shutter Island holds a curious distinction among all the books I've ever read: I've never spent so much time flipping back to reread sentences, paragraphs, and whole pages, searching for clues to what was going on in subsequent chapters. I like reading thrillers with twisty plots - stuff by Jeffery Deaver, David Baldacci, John Lescroart, guys like that. Sometimes I'll get lost following the trails of evidence they lay out, or miss a bit of foreshadowing that sets up an "a-ha!" later on. Almost always, I'll mentally shrug, take it on faith that what the author wrote makes sense, and move on. To be honest, these books are entertaining but lightweight; I don't care enough to think about them too much.

But Shutter Island was different. When the plot suddenly zigged to the left, I flipped back to see if I had missed some important hint in the crackling dialog between Daniels and his partner, Chuck Aule. When it zagged back to the right, I picked my jaw up off the floor, then reread the section that I was sure would prove that it couldn't possibly zag in that direction (I was wrong). And when Lehane gave the story one final, wrenching twist, I very nearly turned to Page 1 and started to reread the whole damn book right then and there, as if he had presented me with a test and I had failed it on the first attempt. Now that's a master manipulator at work.

In fact, although I finished Shutter Island three days ago, it's stuck with me. I'm still trying to work out just what happened to Teddy Daniels. I'm still searching the book for clues, and yes, I may end up reading it cover to cover again, hoping to tease them out. Because somehow Lehane has made me care about finding the truth in his story. Maybe it's all an elaborate ruse; maybe there's nothing there but deliberate ambiguity, with no definitive answers except the ones each reader devises for him- or herself. Or maybe the answer is right there, peeking out from between the lines, if only we could grasp it. I don't know; but it's a novel experience (again, no pun intended) to read a book that so effectively raises questions in its pages without neatly tying up the resolution in a neat, pat epilogue.

If you have any pet theories about what actually happens in Shutter Island, I'd love to hear them. I'd at least like to know that I'm not the only one to become hopelessly tangled in Lehane's sticky web.

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