Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Patrick McGrath, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Spider’ by Patrick McGrath


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 221 pages; 1992.

I read Patrick McGrath‘s Spider — first published in 1990 — back-to-back with Nathan Filer’s Shock of the Fall. Both books are about mental illness, but McGrath’s is written in a more eloquent, old-fashioned, literary style, and left a far deeper impression on me. I don’t say this lightly, but it’s perhaps the best book I’ve read all year.

A tale of madness

The Spider of the title is Dennis Cleg, a troubled man who has returned to London from Canada, where he has been living for the past 20 years. He now resides in a half-way house not far from where he grew up in the East End, shortly before the Second World War. He spends his days wandering once-familiar streets and canal ways trying to adjust to a new life outside of the psychiatric hospital from which he’s recently been released.

I went down to the river, to a pebbly strand where as a boy I used to watch the barges and steamers; in those days they ran on coal, and constantly coughed cloudy spumes of black smoke into the sky. You reached the strand at low tide by a set of tarry wooden steps beside an old pub called the Crispin. Down I’d go to sniff around the boats moored there, old battered working boats with smelly tarpaulins spread across their decks, all puddled with rainwater and green with fungus. Often I’d climb onto the deck and creep under a tarpaulin, in among the iron chains and the damp timbers, and settle myself in a tick oily coil of rotting rope — I loved to be alone in that damp gloom with the muted screaming of the gulls outside as the wheeled and flapped over the water.

These childhood haunts bring back many memories for Spider, who furiously records them in a journal, which he is at pains to keep from prying eyes. In it he recalls how his father, a plumber with a violent streak and a fondness for drink, took up with a local prostitute, Hilda, whom he met in the pub. Shortly afterwards, his mother mysteriously “disappeared” and Hilda moved into the family home.

He was a shy, pensive boy, but after his mother “goes to Canada”, he became even more withdrawn. He coped by learning to separate himself into two people —  Spider, who scuttled about and disassociated himself from his grief, and Dennis, who presented a face to the real world.

As he looks back on these traumatic and troubling events, Spider’s narrative gets increasingly more disturbed in tune with his own behaviour, which becomes more erratic, odd and paranoid as he remembers more and more of his past. He wears all his clothes at once, tapes newspaper to his body, hears unexplained noises in the attic above him, frequently smells gas, and hides his few possessions in a sock worn on the inside of his trouser leg.

What results is a psychological thriller of the finest order, perfectly paced and structured, and with a satisfying, if ambiguous (and troubling), denouement.

Atmospheric novel

Without a doubt, McGrath’s second novel is a rather extraordinary achievement. It has so much atmosphere. You really get a feel, not only for that period in London history —  the oppressive fog, the dodgy outhouses, the murky canal, the noise and conviviality of the pub, the dank and seclusion of the allotment garden — but also of Spider’s fear, pain and neglect as a child.

The story is told in the first person entirely from Spider’s point of view, and sometimes it is hard to determine how much of what he tells us is real or a figment of his madness. His account is so vividly drawn, however, and so filled with pain, confusion and a distrust of all those around him that is hard not to immediately take his side, to wish you could walk into the book and make it all better for him.

The prose has such an emotional impact because there’s a complete absence of pity and sentimentality in it.  It becomes even more emotional (and shocking) when you discover the secrets at the heart of Spider’s fragile mental state.

Sadly, Spider appears to be out of print — I bought mine from a charity shop several years ago — but there are plenty of  second-hand copies sloshing around the internet for just a few pence. Alternatively, you could watch the 2003 film adaptation — directed by David Cronenberg based on a screenplay by McGrath — on DVD, which features Ralph Fiennes in the starring role. His performance as Spider is absolutely mesmerising: fragile and powerful, but also deeply disturbing, too — just like the book.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Patrick McGrath, Publisher, Setting

‘Trauma’ by Patrick McGrath

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 224 pages; 2009.

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.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Patrick McGrath, Publisher, Setting

‘Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now’ by Patrick McGrath


Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Publishing; 256 pages; 2006.

I have long wanted to read something by British-born New York-based writer Patrick McGrath if only because his subject matter, often dark and Gothic, intrigues me. I bought this one on a week-long trip to Manhattan last October when I prowled the city’s book stores looking for novels set in New York. This one practically leapt off the shelf at me, so I bought it, but not without reservation: I’m not a huge fan of the short story.

I needn’t have worried. The three stories in this collection could best be described as novellas (63 pages, 112 pages and 68 pages apiece) and each was incredibly gripping in its own distinctive, haunting way. Each first-person narrative is set in Manhattan, but at different time periods, beginning with the American Revolution and ending in the days following 9/11.

The Year of the Gibbet is told through the eyes of a man dying of cholera in 1832 looking back on his childhood. “It is fifty-five years since my mama died, and I have no doubt but that I will follow her before the week is out,” he tells us on page 2. Here, on his death bed, he comes to terms with the guilt he feels for his mother’s death, for it was his suspicious behaviour as a boy that lead to her capture by the British Army. She was later hanged for being a traitor.

The second story, Julius, is also told by a narrator looking back on past events. In this case, a woman tells the tale of her grandfather, a painter, whose eye was gauged out by a student of his who lost his mind and was put in an asylum for 20 years. The student came from a very wealthy family. When he fell in love with an artist’s model — an Irish woman from the wrong side of the tracks — his father cruelly stepped in to prevent the union.

The final story, Ground Zero, revolves around a psychiatrist treating a male patient, Dan Silver, who has problems sustaining intimate relationships with women. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, Dan tells his shrink that he has fallen in love with a Chinese prostitute, Kim Lee, who has problems of her own. Kim lost her lover in one of the towers but believes she still sees his ghost walking the streets.

Each story is written in stark, clear prose, but there are flashes of brilliance on almost every page, which meant the book took twice as long to read as normal, because I kept going back to re-read bits that impressed me. (One of my favourite lines was this, from page 157: “More glances flitting around the table like little birds in a conservatory, all atwitter with questions.”)

But it’s the descriptions of Manhattan that I liked best, particularly this scene describing the city as it was in 1859:

All over New York buildings were going up, others coming down, some no more than ten years old, but in this impatient town where nothing ever has a chance to decay, ten years was practically an eternity. […] For him the din and chaos of a city engaged in an unending turmoil of construction was nothing more than a spectacle provided for his amusement. It was theatre, and this being a period when increasing numbers of Europeans were arriving in Manhattan every day, the streets became more diverse, more colourful and exotic with every ship that discharged its cargo of humanity at the Battery.

There are common themes throughout the stories, namely death and ghosts and the terrible things people do to one another at times of extreme duress. The city, too, is a malevolent presence, where only the toughest inhabitants survive. Indeed, the opening line from a story set in the late 18th century — “I have been in the town, a disquieting experience, for New York has become a place not so much of death as of the terror of death” — could almost be its closing sentence describing the days after 9/11, too.

All in all, a thoroughly superb trio of elegantly spooky stories, and a great taster for McGrath’s work.