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He was a shy, pensive boy, but after his mother “goes to Canada”, he became even more withdrawn.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.

Australia, Author, Book review, Deborah Forster, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Book of Emmett’ by Deborah Forster


Fiction – paperback; Vintage Books Australia; 304 pages; 2010.

Deborah Forster is a long-time journalist and first-time novelist based in Melbourne, Australia. The Book of Emmett first came to my attention via its long-listing (and subsequent short-listing) for this year’s Miles Franklin Award. When I saw a very positive review of it on Lisa Hill’s ANZ LitLovers LitBlog I was convinced I needed to read it.

The central figure in the novel is Emmett Brown, an abusive, alcoholic father of four children, whose violent behaviour has long-lasting repercussions on his family.

Written in the present tense and using a third person narrative, it opens on the day of Emmett’s funeral. It’s one of those scorching summer days (40.4 degrees) and everyone’s fanning the “slow thick air around their hot faces with funeral programs”. Emmett’s widow, Ann, is there along with her four adult children: Rob, Louisa, Peter and Jessie. From the outset we learn that the loss of their father isn’t the devastating blow one might expect:

In the moment of being held by Peter there in the yard at Gilberts [the funeral home], Louisa understands this as the purest relationship she will ever have. Brothers and sisters want nothing from you. They know who you are and they love you anyway. These are the ones who know and in the war against Emmett, they’d been in the trenches with her.

But we also learn that Emmett, while loathed and feared by those closest to him, is a rather complicated character. He never knew his own father, was dumped by his mother and was raised in an orphanage. Despite a lack of education, he nursed a love of the arts, particularly literature and even ballet, and “kept diaries on and off for most of his life”, stating at the age of 42 that if he were to die he didn’t want “any mealy-mouthed, psalm-singing hypocrite talking bullshit about me”.

“I just want my mob and I want them to cry for me. Cry for me, but not too much and, please, I ask you all now to forgive me for doing some of the wrong things I did. Remember me and laugh about the funny times. Laugh about me. Laugh at me. Doesn’t matter. Remember, I was nothing but a drunken old bum.”

The rest of the book charts the Brown’s lives from the late 1960s to the present day. Through a succession of vignettes, it details the brutal and miserable childhoods of Rob, Louisa, Jessie and Peter, including the death of Peter’s twin, Daniel. The narrative is quite fast-paced so it doesn’t take long before they’ve grown up and are forging their own Emmett-free lives. And yet despite their luck at emerging physically unscathed from their father’s unpredictable heavy-handed temper, their difficult upbringing hangs around their neck like a weight they can never quite escape. It seems particularly telling that Rob proclaims he will never have children because he does not want to turn into his father.

It’s also interesting to see how their relationship with Emmett develops and changes over time, how they begin to see him in a different light when he gets old and sick. Forster charts the inner turmoil of each of Emmett’s children superbly, showing how their feelings of pity for their father cannot be reconciled with the abuse they suffered at his hands when they were too young to defend themselves.

And while all this might sound like quite an unrelenting misery memoir, for want of a better description, it is never dreary, helped in part by a dry sense of humour. In fact, Forster has such an acute sense of people’s inner dialogue that it’s difficult not to get caught up in their lives, to feel their pains and fears and little triumphs as if you were experiencing them yourself. What I most admired was the complete lack of sentimentality in the story, and yet I found it a profoundly affecting read. You feel for these characters, every last one of them, including Emmett, which is surprising given how easily he could have been reduced to a mere caricature.

I suspect that I particularly liked this book because of its Australian flavour. Lisa has already pointed out in her review that Forster hasn’t shied away from using Australian idioms and peopling it with footy players and politicians no self-respecting Melburnian could fail to identify. But this is not your typical Australian bush setting: this is a rough-and-ready Western suburb of Melbourne, the same one where my father was educated, and there are various references to Footscray High (where he went to school), the Western Oval and Australian Rules football legend Ted Whitten (with whom I share a birthday — my dad was pretty pleased about that) that made me nod in recognition.

If nothing else The Book of Emmett is a fascinating exploration of what it is to be (an outdated version) of a “fair dinkum Aussie patriarch”, wanting to do the best by his family but falling short because of his weakness for booze, gambling and the use of his fists. I’ll be intrigued to see how it fares when the Miles Franklin Award is announced next month.

Author, Book review, Carol Topolski, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Monster Love’ by Carol Topolski


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 272 pages; 2008.

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve read a book as dark and oppressive as Monster Love, by Carol Topolski, which was long-listed for last year’s Orange Prize. In fact, I found myself in a bit of a funk all week, for no good reason, and the only thing I could put it down to was reading this highly disturbing book. It’s almost as if the story within had resonated off the page and enveloped me in a cloud of gloom.

I think the most chilling aspect of Monster Love, which tells the story of a married couple accused of killing their four-year-old daughter, is that it could have been lifted from today’s newspaper headlines. It reminded me very much of the the Baby P case (still ongoing), which readers in the UK will know well, and for that reason it seemed a little too authentic for comfort.

This realism is helped, in part, by the way in which the story is recounted through a series of testimonies — monologues, letters and official reports — made by people — neighbours, social workers, family members, jurors and prison officer — who have been affected by the crime in some way.

The parents, Brendan and Sherilyn Gutteridge, recount their side of the story too, and I am not revealing any crucial plot spoilers by saying that they are perhaps the least realistic of the narrators because they appear so damn weird. Their “perfect love” comprises a strange telepathic connection and, in the latter third of the novel, a series of simultaneous sexual fantasies which stray into sheer kookiness. Still, the author, Carol Topolski, is a practising psychoanalytical psychotherapist, who’s probably treated clients much odder than these two.

There’s no doubt that Monster Love is a fascinating, if wholly unpleasant story, but it’s not nearly as thought-provoking as it could have been. This is partly because the narrative is so fragmented that you don’t get a proper overview of the case. You know from the outset that the accused are guilty, so you know what happens in the end, too. And the huge cast of characters all sing from the same hymn sheet so there’s no room for ambiguity or doubt of the couple’s guilt. It also doesn’t help that so many of the testimonies are recounted in the same voice — there seems little to distinguish one character from another.

Structurally, this is a poor novel, but in terms of subject matter you will be hard pressed to find anything so startling and dark.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Invisible Worm’ by Jennifer Johnston


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 181 pages; 1991.

Irish novelist Jennifer Johnston has, in recent times, become one of my favourite writers. This book, her ninth, was first published in 1991. The cover* of my Penguin edition (which I acquired at no cost from BookMooch) is deceptive, because this is not the historical novel I came to expect but a very modern one about the long-lasting impact of child abuse on one woman’s life.

Despite the somewhat horrific subject matter, Johnston has created a delicately realised and completely unsentimental tale. In any other author’s hands I’m afraid this story about a family’s secret past would be elevated to melodrama, with everything spelt out in minute detail. But Johnston’s strength is her ability to weave a complicated narrative using an economical palette of words. As ever, it’s the things she does not say that make The Invisible Worm such an interesting, compelling read.

Set in an unspecified era — is it before the Second World War, immediately afterwards or in the 1980s, I could not tell — Laura Quinlan’s quiet existence is shattered by the presence of Dominic O’Hara, a former priest turned school teacher, who keeps her company whenever Maurice, her busy, but rather doting husband, is away on business. It is clear from the outset that her platonic relationship with Dominic has an undercurrent of sexual tension, but she seems happy to leave it unfulfilled.

Laura is 37 and childless, though not for want of trying.

I did try to have a daughter.
I believe in continuity, the handing down of secrets; I want someone else to hear the whispers, the breaths from the past, as I have always done; someone else to be stirred by the tremors of memory.
Some of the tremors of memory.
I did try. All those seeds were rejected.

A recluse who lives in a lovely big house by the sea, she spends her days reading and gardening. Occasionally she gives dinner parties for Maurice’s colleagues, where she is renowned for her “very good cake”. But on the whole she seems a lonely, troubled woman who refuses to engage with other people or other places, content to stay at home and “guard this mad museum, the curator of my ancestor’s folly”.

When the story opens Laura is getting ready to attend the funeral of her father, a man held in such high regard by others that the Irish president and a “distinguished congregation” attend the service. But Laura’s inner thoughts — “The hole that they dig for you won’t be deep enough, dear Father” — reveal a hatred that seems slightly repellent, if intriguing, to the reader.

It’s only later, when she meets Dominic, that she feels compelled to tell him a little of her dark, hidden past, as if she is confessing her sins to the priest he once was. And slowly, while the pair get to work unearthing the much-neglected summerhouse that once belonged to her long-dead mother, layers of the family’s history are peeled back to reveal the rotten core. The denouement, when it comes, is heart-thumpingly shocking, matched only by the quiet devastation of the aftermath.

For anyone contemplating reading The Invisible Worm I offer a couple of caveats.

This is a simple story, but it jumps backwards and forwards in time and the lack of detail in the bare-boned prose takes a little getting used to, particularly if you are not familiar with Johnston’s style.

There are little literary flourishes to contend with too, such as the constant switching between third person and first person narratives, which can make things confusing, and the sometimes ambiguous conversations between characters, full of interruptions and stilted language, can be difficult to comprehend. The secret, I have found, is to read Johnston’s novels — this one included — in large chunks, rather than snatches here and there. You need to let the language wash over you so that you can find the rhythm of it. You will then find it difficult to let go.

* The cover shows A Summer Afternoon by Sir William Orpen, an Irish painter who died in 1931.

1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Anne Enright, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting

‘The Gathering’ by Anne Enright


Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 261 pages; 2007.

Grim and disturbing are the first words that spring to mind when describing Anne Enright’s Booker-shortlisted The Gathering. But amid the dark, often depressing, subject matter there are chinks of light that make the novel surprisingly witty and, in a perverse kind of way, uplifting.

The story, which is set in Dublin, revolves around Veronica Hegarty, a 30-something wife and mother, who has escaped the clutches of her huge Irish Catholic family — she has eight siblings — only to be dragged right on back when her wayward brother, Liam, kills himself.

Closest to him in age, Veronica is the one who must pick up the pieces — and bring back his body from England, where he drowned himself off Brighton Beach.

Family’s dark history

The first-person narrative is told in a stream-of-consciousness manner from Veronica’s perspective. She flits backwards and forwards in time, exploring her family’s dark history. She goes as far back as her grandparent’s generation as she tries to unravel the nub of the story, which is laid bare in the book’s opening lines:

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me — this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.

During the course of the book, which spans Liam’s death through to his funeral, Veronica traces the sexual history of the family. There’s a lot of shocking stuff here — crass descriptions of love-making and the like — which may be too much for prudish readers to bare.

But through this crude language, we glimpse Veronica’s obsessions and see how her personality has been slightly damaged by her rough-and-tumble crowded childhood. Her pain and her anguish are never expressed to the outside world (she cannot even communicate with her husband) but are buried deep inside where they find expression in Veronica’s self-loathing.

If nothing else, The Gathering is a portrait of a lost woman coming to grips with her past, her present and her future.

This is a complex book, one that requires more than one reading with which to fully come to grips. There’s a lot going on here, about family, about the ties that bind, about the fact we can never escape the past. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s too grim and rambling and unfocussed for that, but I’m a big fan of Irish fiction and found this one did not disappoint.

I don’t think it will win this year’s Booker, but its inclusion on the shortlist is a worthy one.

‘The Gathering’ by Anne Enright, first published in 2007, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is said to “evoke the lasting scars of love”.