I read Patrick McGrath’s Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now last year and enjoyed it so much I made a note to read more of his work. Trauma, his most recent novel, was the ideal follow-up, mainly because it felt remarkably familiar to the final story, Ground Zero, in the previous collection.
Trauma is about a Manhattan-based psychiatrist, Charlie Weir, who is still coming to terms with the break-up of his marriage seven years earlier. Even though he treats patients who have gone through traumatic events, he seems largely unable to confront his own demons.
The opening line makes it clear that Charlie has a guilt complex about his mother:
My mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was seven years old, and I felt it was my fault. I felt I should have prevented it.
Having spent most of his childhood worried about her constant rages, depression and alcoholism, and forever trying to protect her from her suffering, he’s self-aware enough to realise that he chose his profession because of his mother.
It is the mothers who propel most of us into psychiatry, usually because we have failed them.
But the psychological effect of his love for her, and her indifference to him, has been further complicated, or worsened, by the absence of his father, Fred Weir, who deserted the family when Charlie was eight years old. A tense, resentful and problematic relationship with an older brother — Walt, a successful artist — who never cared much for his mother but was clearly her favourite child, means Charlie’s got a few family hang-ups.
All this, by the way, is merely a backdrop to Charlie’s real story, which begins with a tentative reunion with his ex-wife, Agnes, and their young daughter, after a seven-year silence. (The reason for their marriage breaking down and Charlie’s subsequent solitude is a plot spoiler, so I won’t elaborate further.) As the pair begin the long, drawn-out process of mending their relationship, Charlie acquires a new lover, Nora Chiara, and his life, finally, seems to be falling into place.
But, there are complications. He begins sleeping with his ex-wife, who is now married to another man, and then Nora begins freaking him out by behaving in irrational and unexpected ways.
As the tale unfolds it doesn’t take long to see that the psychiatrist is becoming just as unstable as his patients.
What I liked most about this book was the fast and furious pace of the story-telling. Even though the narrative jumps all over the place, from past to present and back again, often within a matter of pages, it’s easy to follow, and allows the reader to build up a picture of a man quite clearly troubled by past experiences and unable to deal with the consequences of his actions. He’s morally dubious throughout, but at what point does the reader even trust his version of events? And who’s to say Agnes, Walter or any of his family members are any better?
There’s something dark and disturbing about the subject matter, but Patrick McGrath has an uncanny ability to really get to the heart of what makes people behave in the often strange and absurd ways that they do. This is the type of novel you race through then wish you’d lingered over the deliciously simple prose that little bit longer. I felt bereft when I came to the end of this book — read in one sitting, I might add — and I rather suspect it would make a great choice for a book group, as there’s clearly so much to discuss, including psychiatry, family relationships, marriage, sex and jealousy.