August 11, 2008

The Grotesque by Patrick McGrath

The Grotesque is Patrick McGrath's first novel, published in 1989 before Asylum and Martha Peake brought him a wider audience. It's an unusual book with few of the problems typical to first novels, over-reaching and precosity being especially dangerous for an edgy young Brit and, at the time of publication, McGrath was very much an edgy young Brit. I enjoyed The Grotesque for the most part. It reads like an intelligent, sometimes lurid, often gothic semi-hallucination thanks to McGrath's narrator (more on him in a second), but though I enjoyed McGrath's execution and language, it fell short of being ultimately satisfying. This isn't to say that The Grotesque was unsatisfying, it just fell slightly short of the impact I'd felt coming since the second chapter.

The Grotesque is about point of view, really. Briefly, the plot revolves the around Sir Hugo Coal's reconstruction of the events surrounding the disappearance and murder of his daughter's fiance. At the center of Hugo's reconstruction sits the sinister figure of his new butler, Fledge, for whom Sir Hugo formed and instant and apparently reciprocal dislike. But McGrath puts a twist on the typical retrospective 1st Person narrator by having Sir Hugo reveal quite early on that he is, in fact, a vegetable. Having suffered a cerebral "event" several months before, Sir Hugo narrates the story from within his own paralyzed carcass. Nobody knows that Hugo is cognizent, so we get the story without any filters but his and though he starts off quite reliably, he soon begins to unravel.

This unraveling is a gradual process, one that McGrath handles with awesome subtlety. Hugo presents his conjectures as fact and imagined scenes as actual events until the reader doesn't know if Sir Hugo is deluded, obsessed or simply crumbling under the weight of his own unexpressed consciousness. In short, he proves himself to be a very unreliable narrator, all the more so because he admits that his "empiricism" (before his "event", he was gentleman naturalist) is beginning to fail due to his vegetal condition.

The overall effect of Sir Hugo's gradual narrative decline is a pretty juicy one. The reader has to read actively. Hugo betrays his unreliabilty in small details and part of the fun is piecing together the possibilities. However, as fun as this is (and it is fun), the pieces fail to culminate in a meaningful climax. This is why The Grotesque fell just short of being satisfying. This book is full of so many breaking mirrors and crumbling echoes that you want it all to come together to a purpose. It's possible that the novel doesn't need to - this is not a story that requires resolution - and I'm glad that McGrath avoided the oh-so-clever notes on which it could have ended. Still, I can't help but feel that if one more connection had been implied, one more facet exposed, it would have pushed the book into the realm of the unforgetable. As it is, I'm very glad I read it, but I feel no compulsion to own it.

August 1, 2008

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black is written by the same Susan Hill who wrote The Various Haunts of Men and The Pure in Heart, though I never would have guessed it if I hadn't already known. Whereas Hill's style is CSI-modern in the Simon Serrailler series, she does an admirable job of sounding Dickensian in The Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black is, first and foremost, a ghost-story in the tradition of The Turn of the Screw. It is a short novel, almost a novella, and it moves along at a brisk pace without an ounce of fat. But for all that, Hill manages to build up a real sense of dread without seeming as if she were trying, so that by the end, we're primed for her punch to the gut.

Here's the inevitable synopsis:

The novel begins, as a good many Victorian era ghost-stories do: with a frame-tale. 

It is Christmas Eve at an English country manor, and though set roughly in the 1940's, an air of warm antiquity hangs over the house. The family takes turn telling ghost-stories as our narrator, the family patriarch, grows increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, when it is his turn to tell a tale, he abruptly leaves; the events of the past have come back to haunt him. He decides to exercise this ghost once and for all, and proceeds to write down the scarring experience that has been with him since he was a young man. This is the story of the woman in black.

As a young solicitor,  the narrator travels to the north of England to sort through the papers of a recently deceased client, a Mrs. Drablow, whom he's never met. At her funeral he sees a woman in black, wasted and dressed in mourning. While he is staying at Mrs. Drablow's home, Eel Marsh House (fantastically conceived as sitting in the center of a fen - inaccessible except for a causeway which is, by turns, exposed and submerged with the tides), the young solicitor falls prey to a series of disturbing visions, sounds and experiences, all of which climax with the realization of who the woman in black is.

Unfortunately, to say anymore would stomp directly all over Hill's awesomely constructed plot.

Now, I have to admit that for most of the book, while I was impressed by Hill's style and even-handed detail, I wasn't feeling the little gut twist of nervousness that I like to come with a ghost story. It all felt too laid out - so perfectly constructed as to be inevitable, and so, not very emotionally unsettling. Until the final chapter. The final chapter did it, and did it really well. 

Overall, The Woman in Black didn't get me the same way that James' Turn of the Screw or "Uncle Silas" by Sheridan le Fanu always do, but it got me all the same; enough so that I want to trade in my library copy for a copy of my own. It's the kind of story for a rainy November day - an awesome post-Victorian, Victorian ghost story.