Patrick McGrath's new novel Port Mungo is all about high drama on the choppy seas of sexual relationships - but then you already knew that, because so were his earlier novels The Grotesque, Spider, Dr Haggard's Disease and Asylum. What makes this one different is that there is no psychiatric illness involved with the passion, making it bloom or wither, so McGrath has to turn the emotional register up even further to compensate.
He does this by having a narrator with a vested interest in what goes on - Gin Rathbone is the sister of Jack, and enjoyed an "intimate" childhood and adolescent relationship with him before he ran off, at the age of 17, with a 30-year-old artist called Vera Savage (already we see McGrath's taste for meaty names brought into play). Jack is an artist too - as is Gin, in her way - and he takes Vera away from England to New York. From there they navigate to Havana and ultimately end up in Port Mungo, in the Gulf of Honduras, a sleepy ex-settlement, all chirping crickets and slow oozing rivers. It is only here, away from modern urban life, that Jack feels his muse can flower.
But Vera is an alcoholic, and in Gin's words, "a slut", and puts it about for the remaining men in Port Mungo while Jack struggles to paint and bring up their children Peg and Anna. Vera comes and goes, leaves him and comes crawling back, until eventually such rocking upsets the equilibrium of the family to the tragic end that 16-year-old Peg dies in mysterious circumstances. Anna is taken away from Jack by his and Gin's other sibling, Gerald, a respectable doctor who has stayed in Surrey. We join the novel when Jack has come to live with Gin twenty years later, and she begins to find out the truth of what happened in Port Mungo...
Gin is an unusual narrator for McGrath: after the insane Dennis Clegg in Spider or the manipulative Peter Cleave in Asylum, her unreliability is quite benign: she's just misinformed about the truth, and also inclined to give Jack the benefit of the doubt, because of her intense, possibly unhealthy (brother Gerald mutters darkly of their "sexually irregular" household), love for him. So because of her emotional - even when not geographical - closeness to Jack, we see everything close-up and full-on, our face pressed to the window, emotional colours bright if not nauseating. Near the end Gin, in finally coming to accept that not everything Jack tells her may be true, gives an unwitting account of her own limitations, and indeed sets out what could be a manifesto for McGrath's fiction:
"I knew that his account of his own experience was not rigorously objective, but what account is? Any version of as dense a weave of events and feelings as a *life* will inevitably be flawed, its stresses and emphases reflecting not the truth - as if there were such a thing - but rather the shapes of bias and denial crafted by memory in the service of the ego."
Needless to say, as ever with McGrath, the writing is impeccable, such that from the start I felt like a cat having its tummy tickled, pure putty (to mix metaphors as he never would) in the hands of a master storyteller. He could teach other writers a thing or two about creating a sense of drama and place, too:
"Then came a huge wave, and I remember a sudden panic rising into my throat, and I closed my eyes and hung out over the side of the wildly rocking gunwale praying to God to see us safe home, as we somehow climbed over the wall of water and plunged down the other side. I knew I was going to be sick and so I was, quite violently sick, and it was terror as much as the motion of the boat. It was horrid, the sensation of choking, and my hair all over my face, and my stomach heaving again and again until there was nothing left in it, and my eyes running, and my nose running - and in the course of all this becoming aware above the roar of the wind that Jack was howling with laughter, and it was because I was being sick! And the more I was sick the louder he howled, he was like a madman, streaming with water and shrieking his crazy laughter into the sky, and I have never forgotten it. Then he began to sing."
There is plenty in Port Mungo to chew on, but it's also a page-turner because of the desire to find out what dark denouement McGrath has in store for us this time. And, while not entirely unexpected (though it can't be unexpected if it is to fit in psychologically with everything that has gone before), he picks a good one. And so, if you lift Port Mungo down from the shelves, have you. It's another McGrath masterpiece.