Patrick McGrath is a master of novels about post-traumatic fragmentation and dissolution, set amid gothic gloom. His childhood years spent at Broadmoor, where his father was medical superintendent, have given him a solid grounding in psychiatric illness for these disquieting dramas.
His ninth novel is set in London’s theatreland in 1947, and the grey, skeletal remains of the bombed East End. As usual with McGrath, the narrator is far from straightforward; in this case it is the ladies of the local theatre-world chorus, who are omniscient, knowing each character’s thoughts. In the absence of an obviously unreliable narrator (such as the possessive Dr Cleave of Asylum or the deluded eponymous doctor of Dr Haggard’s Disease), these disembodied voices resemble a classical Greek chorus, describing and passing judgment on the drama as it unfolds.
And judgmental they certainly are. In the opening scene — the funeral of a great actor named Charlie Grice — they bitchily sneer at his widow, the eponymous wardrobe mistress Joan, letting us know that although she appears striking, she has terrible teeth and a sour personality. One might be listening to the witches in Macbeth — and the fact that they know everything that’s going on adds to the creepiness.
Joan and her promising actress daughter Vera both mourn Grice’s death. Vera thinks her husband Julius is having an affair. Is he — or is he up to something else? Does Vera really suffer episodes of psychosis, with delusions and hallucinations? McGrath is so adept at creating a sense of foreboding that one is never sure whether there will be a rational, a psychiatric or a supernatural explanation for feverish convictions.
Joan, seeing a young actor playing the role that Grice previously played (of Malvolio in Twelfth Night) becomes convinced that her late husband has returned to her in a different body — a delusion that will be familiar to readers of Dr Haggard’s Disease.
The likening of Joan’s sewing machine needle’s tapping to that of a fingernail against the inside of a coffin is wonderfully sinister. And it’s a delight to read of a cry leaping from a throat ‘like a fish’, or of ‘ponderous grey clouds that trampled across the sky like elephants’. Throw in a terrible secret about Grice that undoes Joan completely, and you’re in for a thrilling ride.