Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Lemur’ by Benjamin Black

The Lemur

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 2009; 185 pages.

Ghostwriters or journalists who get themselves into trouble while researching the books that they are writing is not a new idea in fiction — think Robert Harris’ The Ghost and Alan Glynn’s Bloodland for a start. Into this “genre” comes The Lemur, a stand-alone novella by John Banville writing under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.

But this is not your average run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. Fast-paced and full of classy prose (and classy characters), it has all the hallmarks of a book that could have been written any time in the past 60 years: it feels like a good old-fashioned classic, with a nod to the likes of Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler, but is set in modern day Manhattan, with its glass canyons and chaotic streets ringing with the constant sound of police sirens.

The story is a slight one — a biographer hires a researcher who uncovers a dangerous secret but is murdered before the secret can be told — but in Black/Banville’s hands it feels like a much grander narrative.

A man with a secret

Essentially, The Lemur goes something like this: John Glass, a renowned Irish journalist, has married into a rich American family headed by billionaire William “Big Bill” Mulholland, a former CIA operative who has made his money in spyware electronics. When Mulholland discovers that another journalist, Wilson Cleaver, is planning a hostile biography of him, he hires his son-in-law, Glass, to pen the official version for the grand sum of $1million.

But Glass, feeling slightly out of his depth, decides to hire a researcher to help him on the project. And this is where he meets the “Lemur” of the title — a young researcher by the name of Dylan Riley, who already seems to know a lot about Mulholland. Glass is immediately suspicious of him, not the least because “with that long neck and little head and those big, shiny eyes, he bore a strong resemblance to one of the more exotic rodents”.

Things take a turn for a worse when a day after their first meeting Riley tries to blackmail Glass for $500,000:

“No, you look,” the Lemur said, in a new, harsh and suddenly unadolescent-sounding voice. “You used to be the real thing, Glass. A lot of us believed in you, followed your example. Now look at you.” He gave a snort of disgust. “Well, sell out to your father-in-law the spook if you like. Tell the world what a sterling guy he is, the unacknowledged Cold War conscience of the West, the man who urged negotiations with Castro and a safe passage for Allende to Russia — as if he’d have wanted to go, the poor schmuck. Go ahead, write his testament, and peddle your soul for a mess of dollars. But I know something that will tear you people apart, and I think you should pay me, I think you WILL pay me, to keep it all in the family.”

But the next day, the Lemur is found dead, shot through the eye with a Beretta. What is the secret he knew? And has he told anyone else? And why are the police suddenly asking Glass a lot of questions?

Edgy and filmic

The Lemur might be a relatively simply tale — there’s nary a red herring to be seen and the narrative is far too short to twist and turn in the way of a conventional thriller — but it definitely holds the attention, probably because the author makes every scene, no matter how small, feel edgy and combative: you’re never quite sure which character in a given situation is going to come off the worse for wear.

As one would expect from a Booker prize-winning author, the prose is rich and alive but Banville reigns things in beautifully: there are no literary flourishes, just good writing with a distinct filmic quality to it.

Likewise, the characters are exemplarily drawn — the bullish but aloof father-in-law; the impeccably dressed and successful wife; the intriguing and artistic mistress; the arrogant “young pretender” step son; the once-famed journalist wrestling with his conscience and afraid to lose all — while the razor-sharp dialogue moves things along at a clipping pace.

The ending, while plucked from the usual “family secret” book of cliches, is satisfying in its own little way. But this is not the kind of book you read for the denouement; it’s the pleasurable journey you experience along the way that makes The Lemur such a beguiling read.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Colum McCann, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Let The Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann


Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 349 pages; 2009.

Anyone who has seen the Oscar-winning documentary Man on a Wire or read Philippe Petit’s To Reach The Clouds will know of Petit’s daring high-wire act between between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974. It was an act that stunned the world but has taken on extra significance now that the Twin Towers are no longer standing.

Adding to the mythology of Petit’s incredibly daring stunt (he walked the wire for 45 minutes, making eight crossings between the towers, and was arrested shortly after) is Colum McCann‘s equally ambitious novel. I say ambitious because it’s fairly staggering in its scope, telling as it does the individual stories of a diverse group of characters living in New York, using Petit’s walk as a kind of bridging link between them all. Does he pull it off? In my opinion, not quite.

Long-time readers of this blog will know I have a penchant for Irish writers and stories set in New York, so I rather suspected that Let The Great World Spin would be right up my street, seeing as it ticked both boxes. But there was something about this book that didn’t gel with me and I’ve spent the best part of a week trying to figure it out.

I think the problem is not so much the scope and the huge canvas that McCann uses, nor the diversity of his characters — an Irish monk, a prostitute and an Upper Eastside housewife among them, all expertly drawn — but that the book reads very much like a collection of short stories strung together (pun not intended) by Petit’s high-wire act. Some of these stories interconnect, others, such as the very brief chapter about Fernando, a 13-year-old subway graffiti artist, do not. And, as ever with books of this type, there is a danger that the reader will like some characters better than others, so that certain chapters become more exciting, or more dull, than others, leading to an inconsistent read.

But I don’t want to sound too harsh, because there’s no doubt that McCann knows how to write beautifully, painting pictures in just a handful of words, as this example shows:

I watched a long pink boa scarf get caught up in the wheels of a patrol car. It wrapped the wheelbase as if in affection, and bits of tufted pink spun in the air.

Similarly, his ability to get into the skin of so many different characters — a rich house wife who’s grieving over her son killed in Vietnam, a Jewish judge called to deal with Petit’s legal case, a black hooker fighting to see her two grandchildren, a reformed drug user guilty of a hit-and-run fatality — without chiming a wrong note is impressive. And his “bridging” segments about Petit are also a delight to read, particularly the section describing the high-wire itself:

The shouting, the sirens, the dull sounds of the city. He let them become a white hum. He went for his last silence and he found it just stood there, in the precise middle of the wire, one hundred feet from each tower, eyes closed, body still, wire gone. He took the air of the city into his lungs.

Interestingly, when I saw McCann at the Cheltenham Literature Festival last week, he confessed that he wanted the book to contain two very strong fictional characters, mirroring the Twin Towers, but that he accidentally killed one off before he really got started — and he just couldn’t bring him back. Whoops, I hope that wasn’t a plot spoiler.

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, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Holland/Netherlands, Joseph O'Neill, literary fiction, London, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 248 pages; 2009.

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland was famously long-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize, attracting a flurry of support from mainly North American critics who loved the cricket element of the book. (The Vulture section of the New York Times has quite a good summary of the acclaim it garnered upon release. And President Obama also turned out to be a fan. )

But on the other side of the pond the response was more mixed. And if you dare check the reviews you’ll see the broad spectrum of views it’s attracted which range from glowing five-star accounts to less-than-complimentary one-star assessments.

Thinking that the novel was about cricket, I picked it up at the start of the Ashes series last month hoping to get myself in the mood for a summer of competitive sport between two old rivals, Australia (my homeland) and England (where I now reside). Six weeks on, the five-match series is now at level pegging and the deciding final match will be played this coming Thursday, so what better time to review the book?

Living in the netherland

While Netherland could be regarded as a paean to cricket, this is not a novel about cricket. This is a novel about what it is like to be an outsider and living in the fringes, or as O’Neill’s apt title suggests, in a state of being neither here nor there — the netherland.

For while the protagonist, Hans van den Broek, chooses cricket as his refuge, there’s a lot more going on here than the “gentleman of sport”. Hans is an immigrant — Dutch-born but educated in Britain and now residing in Manhattan, with his wife and young son. He’s desperate to fit in and goes through the whole rigmarole of gaining his US drivers license, if only to become that little bit more embedded in the culture.

Connecting with people who play cricket in New York is yet another way he can “connect”, albeit with an immigrant underclass. And, tellingly, the one man with whom he forges a tentative friendship, Chuck Ramkissoon, winds up being pulled out of a New York canal with his hands tied behind his back. (Note, this isn’t a plot spoiler: O’Neill reveals this fact up front and much of the novel is about Hans recalling his relationship with Chuck, trying to pinpoint what it is about that man that could have resulted in someone wanting to murder him.)

Disintegration of a marriage

Netherland has also been described as a post-9/11 novel, but again, this label has been slightly misconstrued. While the book reflects the kind of “netherland” residents in Manhattan might have felt in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, a kind of eerie state of no longer feeling comfortable in their homes, this isn’t the sole premise of the book.

O’Neill uses it as a vehicle to explain the disintegration of Hans’ marriage, for while Hans is content to be “carried along by the dark flow of those times” his wife is not. She no longer feels safe in the city and decides to return to her native England, taking their infant son with her. Hans, unable to commit to such a move, finds himself living a kind of transatlantic lifestyle, dividing his time between New York and London. Again, it’s a netherland existence, neither a New Yorker, nor a Londoner; neither a married man, nor a bachelor.

Ironically, having read this book, I, too, felt kind of ambivalent about it, not quite sure if I loved or loathed it. I finished it maybe a month ago but simply haven’t had the time to review it, but strangely, with the passing of time, the story has coalesced in my brain and I’ve found myself thinking about certain elements.

I wonder now what was holding Hans back, why he was passive on so many different fronts — his friendship with Chuck, who clearly had a lot of dodgy things happening in his life; and his foundering marriage — and let events wash over him without really taking any action himself. Was it a psychological netherland that constrained him, or would that be taking the netherland theme a step too far?

The healing power of cricket

One of things that has stuck in my head is the sense of belonging Hans achieved by playing cricket in New York, even though some of his fellow sportsmen could not speak English and he refused to adapt his batting style to the “American way” which meant “the baseball-like business of slugging and hoisting”. I loved that each weekend was spent in a van, travelling around the five boroughs, to play a “friendly”.

We sat mostly silent in the van, absorbed into the moodiness that afflicts competitors as they contemplate, or try to put out of their minds, the drama that awaits. What we talked about, when we did talk, was cricket. There was nothing else to discuss. The rest of our lives — jobs, children, wives, worries — peeled away, leaving only this fateful sporting fruit.

As an aside, I was watching BBC Newsnight a week or two back which featured a story about the NYPD running a cricket competition to help improve relations with the city’s ethnic minorities.  “That sounds just like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland,” I told my Other Half, who was watching it with me. Then, lo and behold, the presenter Gavin Esler interviewed, via satellite, O’Neill, who came across as one of the most articulate, gentlemanly and genuine author interviews I’ve ever seen. You can watch it here. It was enough to make me want to read more of his work, so if you’ve read any of this other titles, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Sylvia Plath

‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 240 pages; 2009. Free copy for our Book Group courtesy of the publisher.

I first read Sylvia Plath’s one and only novel, The Bell Jar, as a young 20-something, when I was hugely unsure of my place in the world. Indeed, I’d graduated but my career prospects were thwarted by a massive recession (it was 1991) and I was making ends meet by working part-time in a bookshop.

Reading The Bell Jar at that time was a rewarding experience, because the main character, Esther Greenwood, was also coming to terms with her place in the world — or not coming to terms with it, as it turned out. As I read about Esther sliding further and further into depression, I realised my life wasn’t so bad after all. But I did find The Bell Jar very dark and bleak.

Reading the book for the second time, almost 18 years later, I was struck by how little of it I remembered. And it also seemed far less depressing. Indeed, there were many moments when I laughed out loud. Here’s a case in point: Esther and a colleague catch a yellow cab back to their hotel after a party, and this is what ensues:

The cab driver took the corners with such momentum that we were thrown together first on one side of the back seat and then on the other. Each time one of us felt sick, she would lean over quietly as if she had dropped something and was picking it up off the floor, and the other one would hum a little and pretend to be looking out the window.

Life in the big Apple

But I digress… For those of you who are unaware of the storyline, it goes something like this:

It is 1953. Esther Greenwood is a first-rate student from rural America who wins a college scholarship along with the opportunity to spend a month in New York City as an intern at a fashion magazine. But during her time in Manhattan with 11 other young female interns, Esther slowly realises that she can no longer define herself by her academic accomplishments. The world, as she knows it, is coming to an end and she doesn’t quite know how to handle it. Or, as she describes it, she “felt like a racehorse in a world without racetracks”.

When she returns home, she discovers that her application to join a writing course over the summer has been rejected, and depression sets in.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story [that she had read].
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

The phrase that comes to mind here is “paralysed by choice”. Indeed, as the summer drags on, Esther becomes more dejected, lost and depressed, not helped by the absence of her medical student boyfriend who has been sent to a sanatorium to recover from tuberculosis. Not that she thinks much of him anyway…

Before long, Esther is seeing a psychiatrist and admitted to an asylum. A string of failed, one might say half-hearted, suicide attempts follow, as does a course of electro-shock treatment. It all feels very bleak and depressing…although the ending is relatively upbeat.

Upbeat first part, downbeat remainder

I’ll admit that I loved the first third of the book, set in New York, much more than the sections covering her psychiatric experiences. Perhaps it’s the beautiful writing and the pitch-perfect descriptions of Manhattan where “the city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking” or maybe I just identified with Esther’s cynicism, her refusal to get caught up in the shallowness of the fashion industry, the endless parties, the free gifts. She wants something more meaningful even if she hasn’t quite figured out what that might comprise…

The latter two-thirds of the book comes across a bit like one long whinge-fest. There was part of me that wanted to grab Esther by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. Sure, her aspirations aren’t being taken seriously, but why not prove what you can achieve before giving up because you don’t see the point of it all?

But then, it’s hard to fully comprehend what it must have been like to be a woman in the 1950s when society simply expected you to get married, stay at home and raise a family. How would an intellectual, creative woman, deal with making such compromises?

The Bell Jar was Plath’s only novel because she killed herself a few weeks after it was published. Obviously, one can’t help wondering how much autobiographical detail fills its pages. Sadly, we will never know.

‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath, first published in 1963, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it claims the novel has become “one of the most notorious depictions of a mental breakdown in American literature”.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Sloan Wilson, USA

‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ by Sloan Wilson


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 288 pages; 2005.

Sloan Wilson, who died in 2003 aged 83, wrote 15 novels, but his most famous was The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, first published in 1955.

I picked this book up several years ago, attracted more by the black and white photograph of Gregory Peck on the cover and the lovely silver spine that is the trademark of a Penguin Modern Classic than the name of the author. Indeed, I had never heard of Sloan Wilson, whom, it seems, had become one of those neglected writers recently championed by the modern literary elite — in this case, Jonathan Franzen, who writes a brief but very good introduction to this edition. (Franzen did something similar for Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters a few years back, which makes me wonder whether that might explain his lack of recent fiction: he’s too busy writing introductions for long-forgotten authors than concentrating on his own literary career.)

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is described as the quintessential 1950s novel, mainly because that’s the era in which it is set and written, but putting aside the sexism and the “traditional” family life — man goes to work, woman stays at home and looks after the children — depicted within its pages, it is still highly relevant and tackles themes and issues that are pertinent today.  For instance, at what point does one acknowledge that it is more important to enjoy one’s work than it is to make as much money as possible from something you detest? When do you stop worrying about the future and start enjoying the present? Should you tell people the truth or tell them what they want to hear? Is rampant consumerism the path to happiness?

The book follows Tom Rath, a veteran of the Second World War, who is married to Betsy. They have three young children and live in suburban Connecticut, but are desperate to move up in the world, to “afford a bigger house and a better brand of gin”.

When Tom leaves his dull but secure Manhattan job and applies for something slightly different — a PR man for the United Broadcasting Company (UBC) — Betsy is surprised. “I’ve never thought of you as a public-relations man,” she says to him. “Would you like it?” “I’d like the money,” is his reply.

By a large stroke of luck, Tom walks into a challenging but cushy job as the right-hand man of Mr Hopkins, the president of UBC, who plans to form a national committee on mental health. It’s not a particularly well paid job, but the opportunities for promotion are immense.

Still, despite the promise of a bright future, Tom is plagued by doubts — he simply does not think he is good enough for the job and he struggles to work out where he fits in.

His life is further complicated by the death of his elderly grandmother. She leaves him a large, crumbling estate, which could potentially be the answer to all his financial woes, but her hired help creates turmoil by contesting the will. And then there’s problems with the local community which could scupper his plans to subdivide the land for extra profit.

All these complications lead Tom — and Betsy too — into a kind of stressed existence, where all they do is work and worry, following a set routine that leaves neither of them content. “There’s something that seems to be hanging over us,” Betsy says one morning. “Something that makes it hard to be happy.”

That cloud hanging over them is Tom’s inability to talk about his war experience, not because he is troubled by the people he killed, but because he had an affair with an Italian women with whom he suspects he has fathered a child. This scene, as Tom and Betsy lie in bed one night, is as good as any at conveying the strain within their marriage:

‘Did you ever kill anyone?
‘Of course.’
‘I mean, did you personally ever kill anyone? You’ve never talked to me about it.’
‘Right now I’m too tired. I want to go to sleep.’
He stirred restlessly and shut his eyes. In the dim light from the window Betsy lay looking at his big hands lying quietly folded on top of the covers. ‘I cannot imagine you killing anyone,’ she said.
There was no answer. Betsy lay looking at him for several minutes before trying to go to sleep. How strange, she thought, to know so little about one’s husband.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a wonderful story about juggling the work / life balance while still being able to provide for your family. The blurb of this particular edition calls it “a testament to the enduring power of family love” but I’d argue it’s more about being true to yourself, about being courageous and living the life you want to lead, not the life you are expected to lead.

But what I liked about it most, aside from the very human tale told within its pages, is the lightness of touch Wilson brings to the narrative. There’s a cast of well-rounded, occasionally comical characters, with walk-on roles that bring a smile to the face. And he’s very adept at making conversations sound ludicrous but totally believable by turns.

The strength of the narrative also lies in its many threads. While Tom is the main protagonist, we also get to experience other view points — namely Mr Hopkins and the probate judge considering the disputed will. And Tom’s back story, that as a paratrooper in the war, is nicely fleshed out using a series of regular flashbacks woven seamlessly into the main storyline.

I found little, if anything, to fault in this highly entertaining novel. The author has been criticised for the sappy ending, but personally I didn’t mind it, and I’m now keen to seek out the 1956 film version of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit starring Gregory Peck. And I’ll probably go hunt out his other novels, which all seem to be out of print; if they are as good as this one it will be worth the effort.

Author, Back Bay Books, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Pete Hamill, Publisher, Setting

‘Forever’ by Pete Hamill


Fiction – paperback; Back Bay Books; 613 pages; 2004.

Sometimes you pick up a book and get totally swept away by the story that you forgot all sense of time or place. So it was with this critically acclaimed novel by Pete Hamill, the former editor in chief of the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

At 613 pages I expected this hefty tome to last me a couple of weeks but I was so caught up in the life of Cormac O’Connor, an Irish immigrant who lands in New York in 1740 and remains…forever, that I raced through it in less than a week — and even then I tried to draw out the last hundred or so pages because I didn’t want it to end.

I’m not sure how to describe Forever. It’s part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable. It spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan. And because part of his deal is to ensure he lives a very full and active life, rather than sitting on the sidelines merely existing, he throws himself into all kinds of situations.

Over the course of some 300 years he witnesses (and sometimes partakes in) many great scenes in history, including the American Revolution and the destruction of the World Trade Centre on 9/11. During this time he also meets and falls in love with several women, learns many different trades, carries out various professions (printer, artist, journalist) and teaches himself a host of languages.

But this is no fairytale. Violence and mayhem follow Cormac throughout the ages, particularly as he is on a quest to avenge his father’s brutal murder. According to Celtic code this means he must not only seek out and kill his father’s murderer, he must also ensure that all of the murderer’s heirs are slain. (I admit that I quietly struggled with this aspect of the storyline, because it seemed too brutal for my liking — and I wanted Cormac, such a well-rounded and likeable character in so many respects, to learn that revenge does not solve anything. I won’t spoil the plot by revealing whether or not he succeeds in achieving his goal.)

What I loved most about Forever is the way in which Hamill has made New York as much a character in the book as any of the people Cormac meets. As time moves on you get to witness changes to the city’s structure, its ethnicity, its politics; you see it grow and change; you discover how it transformed itself from a British outpost for trade and commerce to one of the world’s most glamorous and exciting urban centres. And along the way you meet real characters — good, bad and ugly — from history that shaped the way the city is today.

But the book is not just about Manhattan. To my surprise the first 124 pages are set in Ireland, so you get a brief sense of Celtic history, too.

My only quibble is that Hamill devotes much attention to the 18th and 19th centuries but then skips ahead from 1868 to 2001 in one giant leap. The great technological advances during the 20th century are mentioned only in passing, and all the best bits about New York history — the jazz era, the Great Depression, prohibition, the quest to build taller and taller buildings — are given scant regard. But, on the whole, this does not destroy the magic of this wonderfully entertaining and enlightening story.

Forever is a unique and original tale about history, humanity and the sometimes horrible things people do to each other. But it’s also a story about courage, conviction and how we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past if we do not learn from others who have gone before us. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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.