Kate doesn't know much about her childhood, and she's not asking--not yet. After growing up in the System, and bouncing from family to family, Kate has finally made it. She's got a great job, she's married the perfect man (Gregg), and they've just bought the perfect little house in the country. The only problem is that the house sits on the grounds of an abandoned psychiatric hospital. Kate becomes mildly obsessed with the hospital, noticing the eerie presence of a light in one of the windows. To make matters worse, Gregg has to travel a lot for his work, leaving Kate alone with her imaginings and her growing dread of the hospital. With the help of her friend Annie, Kate begins to go down the rabbit hole of her past, first exploring the hospital, discovering family she did not know she had, and secrets that haunt her dreams. She discovers that the psychiatric hospital was the scene of indescribable horrors--and is a place that is indelibly intertwined with her past and her present.
I was excited to read this book when I found out it had a horror/psychological thriller element to it, and I was not disappointed. I have long been fascinated and disgusted with the treatment of the mentally ill through the ages. Mental illnesses for which we now have multifarious diagnoses were in many cases chalked up to simple "madness," and the treatments were not nuanced in the least. Heavy sedation, lobotomy, and "skull drills" were among the available treatments, and all in all, psychiatric hospitals, well into the 20th Century, were more like jails than treatment facilities. This certainly seemed to be the case for Kate’s mother at the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital in Shielded Past.
From a narrative standpoint, Morelli made extremely good use of her chosen setting, and exhibited a really good understanding of how to build narrative tension. She begins by presenting us with a picture of a perfect life, where everything is seemingly as it should be: Cinderella has her prince, they're moving into their castle, and there is already a room for a future baby. From there, everything starts to slip gradually into chaos. There are light moments along the way to break up the tension, (This is not Stephen King, after all. But even Jack Torrance didn't slide into madness overnight.) but overall, the story continues its relentless march toward its terrible climax. The horror Kate faces lies less in the present and more in the revelations of the past. But there is certainly a growing threat to her own person--and Morelli, I think, really effectively foreshadows this threat without out giving it away outright. It's a hard balance to strike: making you suspect someone and then making you second-guess yourself right up until the last second. In my opinion, one of the best villains in all of literature is Iago from Shakespeare's Othello. Perhaps it is because he is the most despicable sort of villain in that he presents the face of a friend while hiding the heart of a wolf. Shielded Past draws a bit on this motif.
I felt that Morelli had a really solid cast of characters. Kate is arguably the main character, but I liked learning about Kate through her friend Annie. Annie was sort of the life of the book. She is so much more than comic relief, but drives the story forward. It is she, not Kate, who is the catalyst for many of Kate's discoveries. I was also fascinated by another character (who I will not reveal by name, in the interest of avoiding spoilers) who was a monster and did monstrous things, but who was also capable of deep and real love. I love it when an author takes a risk and asks us to look at the other side of the monster. It is easy to demonize those who do despicable things--and maybe they deserve to be demonized, at least partly. But it is even harder, and maybe more worthwhile, to try to find the humanity in such people.
The one beef I had with Shielded Past probably stems from my editing background. There was a lot of inconsistency with use of punctuation, paragraph breaks, etc. throughout the book. I can, of course, excuse missing periods or close-quotes here and there, but there were many instances where I had to stop and figure out who was talking because it was not clear from the formatting. Also, a personal stylistic preference, but I really dislike comma splices. I think there are instances where two independent clauses can be joined by a comma if it is following the natural flow of language. But in many instances, spliced sentences just read funny to me, almost like run-on sentences, and feel a little careless.
Patti Morelli has crafted a really great story with Shielded Past. If you've read my past reviews, you know that I put the highest premium on story. And while I prefer that the strength of the writing match the strength of the plot, I am more concerned that the plot and the characters work together cohesively. In Shielded Past, they do just that. I was hooked early on, and I found myself reading for hours at a time at each sitting. If you want a suspenseful read that will have you guessing right up until the end, you will not be disappointed.