James Walton

Haunted by the past: Last Days in Cleaver Square, by Patrick McGrath, reviewed

Visions of Franco torment Francis McNulty whenever he recalls his youth fighting with the International Brigades

General Franco. Credit: Getty Images

At the risk of encroaching on Spectator Competition territory, what is the least surprising thing for any given narrator in a particular author’s work to say? (For one of Irvine Welsh’s, a single word of four letters might be enough.) In the case of Patrick McGrath, I’d suggest, the answer comes on page 55 of his new novel: ‘I confess I feel that my sanity is under threat.’

McGrath famously grew up in the grounds of Broadmoor, where his father was the medical superintendent, and his consequent lifelong interest in psychiatry is reflected in pretty much all of his fiction. As a rule, if you’re a McGrath protagonist, you’re likely to be suffering from some sort of serious mental illness — often, for some reason, with a side order of repressed homosexuality.

‘Nothing for ages, then two come along at once.’

Both these elements are duly present again here, together with two of the newer concerns from McGrath’s previous novel The Wardrobe Mistress: namely fascism and ghosts. The main character of that book, set in post-war London, was haunted (perhaps literally) by her dead husband who she then discovered had been an Oswald Mosley supporter. In Last Days in Cleaver Square, the fascist ghost haunting the narrator Francis McNulty is just as ambiguously presented, but this time a lot better-known.

As a young man, Francis fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish civil war. Now, as an old one — older, in fact, than strict chronology would seem to allow — he’s living in London in 1975, and having visitations from General Franco. Which might be mysterious enough even if Franco weren’t still (just about) alive in Madrid.

So is Francis right to worry about that sanity of his? Certainly his daughter Gilly thinks so, treating him with the customary mixture of tenderness and condescension shown to the elderly.

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