Patrick McGrath's magnificent Ghost Town is a triptych of novellas about Manhatten. The opening story, `The Year Of The Gibbet' written by a man as he waits to die of cholera, in the epidemic of 1832, looks back more than 55 years, to the Revolutionary War of Independence, when he was a small boy, and his mother a Revolutionary fighting against the hated British oppressor, hanging these revolutionaries as subversive traitors.
The opening sentence, in my header will do a circular to the final story (more later)
The central character in `The Year Of The Gibbet' has been haunted by the horrific events around his mother's life and death, and, indeed, haunted by her ghost, and inhabited life of the margins of poverty
"There is little left to tell. Half a century has passed since The Year of The Gibbet, and the war has been transformed in the minds of my countrymen such that it now resembles nothing so much as the glorious enterprise of a small host of heroes and martyrs sustained by the idea of Liberty and bound for that reason to prevail in the end.
But I am haunted."
The second story, Julius, recounts the rise and fall of the wealthy Van Horn family from roughly the end time of the previous story to a period some 50 years later, and shows how class and race prejudice, can damage the lives of both oppressed and oppressor. The narrator of this story looks back at her family history, and the story she wormed out of her mother, when she was still small, about Julius, his sisters, and her grandparents.
The ghosts in this story are the ghosts of `what might have been, if only' which haunt all lives, and the ghosts of former lives, wasted lives, memory, real and imagined, and history itself, pressing on the present.
The women in the middle story live in a time where women for the most part were without power.
"For the story of Julius, so painstakingly assembled by means of the fafding memories of those who knew him, and the ghosts now clustered on my walls and sideboards - do they not all clamor the same sad warning? That love denied will make us mad? I think so"
The third story, Ground Zero, relates the story of September 11 through the effect on the lives of a female psychotherapist, her male client, and his obsession with a very powerful, very damaged woman who uses and is used by her predatory sexuality. The lives of the three, and indeed the lives of all others in the city, are haunted by the before, the during, and the aftermath of the events of September 11. The terror of death, and the confrontation with mortality become conscious and unconscious forces. Sex and death are woven together in this final story.
I wonder about the woman from Battery Park, the one who wanted a funeral for her husband but had no body to put in the coffin........ Did she find closure? Did she,...?
This is a short, and sombre book, beautiful, melancholy and violent
It is part of a series by Bloomsbury, subtitled The Writer And The City, where different writers explore particular cities as jumping off points for fiction
on 3 December 2008
Patrick McGrath's 2005 trilogy Ghost Town consists of three novellas all set in New York, with characters of each sometimes inhabiting almost identical areas of Manhattan. Chronologically, though, they move in sequence. All three are involved to some extent or other with violence and its devastating aftereffects.
The first story is set half a century or so after the American War of Independence, and is narrated by a man huddling on his own while facing imminent death, reflecting back on his brave mother's death during that war. This is Martha Peake territory, and the violence and upheaval caused by the British refusal to relinquish power peacefully to the Americans is conjured up evocatively. The story is solid, full of rich detail and vivid imagery, but the character of the narrator's mother is too much that of the stereotypical staunch, valiant, unfalteringly courageous woman to truly come alive for me - surely a real person would have wept under the circumstances of her death, watched by her young children. Unflinching valour in the face of violent death, especially for a mother watched by her offspring, is just too much the stuff of legend to bring a characters to life.
The second story is much more plausible. Set in the mid nineteeth century, it coincides temporally with the Civil War, but the war between the North and South occurs offstage. The story is concerned more with the catastrophe of a chain of events in a single family. The wealthy Noah van Horn, steely and focused after the premature death of his young wife, sets emotion aside in concentrating on the growth of his business empire. When his son Julius - already a disappointment in his inability to take over the family business - falls in love with an unsuitable woman, Noah takes drastic action. The results are explosive and disastrous. The characters in this story are more finely painted than in the first - Noah is plausible as a driven man whose prejudice and emphasis on respectability bring his family to ruin.
The third story is as powerful as the second. Set in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers, it involves an unreliable narrator, a trick McGrath pulled off with chilling aplomb in Port Mungo. A psychiatrist tries to help a confused and damaged man cast off his ghosts and forge healthy relationships. Or does she? Whose interest is the psychiatrist serving, and what are her motives?
All in all, this is a stunning trio of tales which gives a hint of the wealth of human emotion and destruction that has taken place in one of the world's most famous cities. ****0 1/2
on 31 January 2007
The first story called The Year of the Gibbet takes the reader back to 1776 when King George's ships came to conquer Manhattan. It is the sad tale of a boy of ten whose mother becomes a traitor with the British in order to sustain her children.
The second story is that of Julius in the 1850s who falls in love with a girl below his rank, a fact which will lead his father to take an unpardonable measure. Love denied can make us mad indeed.
In the third story Danny Silver is the narrator's patient whose psychological problem originated in a suffocating maternal relationship. He observed the suffering of a woman he hired for sex, Kim Lee, was affected by it and launched himself in a reckless trajectory with her. The 9/11 terror attacks were so destructive on Danny's psyche that not only did he buy sex but bought a sort of emotional intimacy with a woman who was even more damaged than himself and mistook the comfort it gave him for love.
A stunning trio of tales, they are sly and thought-provoking because the author evokes the insanity and violence underlying the surface of everyday life.
on 4 February 2006
I'm a great fan of Patrick McGrath and, although this cannot be said to be his best work, it is, nonetheless, a good read.There are 3 novellas in the book; I enjoyed the way in which McGrath blended the past, and present, of the city in this series of fictional stories. I was absorbed, but also amazed at how the author makes writing seem such an easy and seamless occupation.
Finally, it's a wonderful little hardback book - a joy to hold and own!