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on 19 February 2015
I have a distinct impression of the characters and landscapes in this novel, published in 1996, being seen through a sepia filter. The author, b. 1950, creates a stultifying environment that extends beyond the two mental hospitals and into the east end of London. Reading the book makes one want to open a window to breath fresh air, albeit perhaps not that of North Wales.
The book, set in 1959, is narrated by Peter Cleave, a psychiatrist at a hospital for the criminally insane outside London [`Stella Raphael's story is one of the saddest I know' he states on the first page]. The story centres on Stella, the bored wife of the deputy-superintendent and forensic psychiatrist, Max Raphael, who is attracted to one of the inmates, sculptor Edgar Stark who has decapitated and enucleated [I didn't either] his wife believing that she was serially unfaithful. Stella and Edgar meet through her young son, Charlie, a rather sad and peripheral figure and soon they are engaged in a passionate affair.
Cleave's narrative is clinical and dry in the extreme, although his use of the possessive adjective [`my Edgar'] is very revealing, and he dos not hesitate to fill in details about which he uncertain. With Stella's assistance, Edgar absconds to London where, after a period, she visits him and their affair continues, assisted by a painter and judge's son, Nick - a particularly unconvincing figure.
Eventually Stella's affair is uncovered and Cleave describes the crumbling of her marriage, Max's transfer to a mental institution at Cledwyn, deep in rural North Wales and the consequences for the Raphael family, Edgar and Cleave. None of these characters are likeable and I would certainly not want to be treated by any of the doctors who seem to view their patients merely as specimens. However, for any book to succeed it must engage the reader through its plot, characters or descriptions.
Here the plot seemed less than credible - whilst media reporting of an escaped `lunatic' in the early 1960s was no doubt less than today, it seems unlikely that it could be so low-key and that no official investigation into the circumstances of the escape was apparently launched. I do not demand likeable characters but they should interest the reader and these sadly do not; there is only so much unrestrained bonking, drinking and smoking that I can take. The narrative tone of Dr Cleave is tedious and creates a barrier to the reader's emotional engagement, whilst overall there is no very obvious sense of period in the descriptive writing.
Stella longs for the city life and so her reaction to finding herself in North Wales, amongst the `suspicious, watchful men, dour and sly', the `hard-worked and bitter' women [her landlord's wife, Mair Williams, had eyes that `spoke only of work and disappointment and bitterness and sterility']. Charlie, unsurprisingly, finds his new schoolmates `rough and unfriendly'. The Williams' dog `leapt at them in a fury, and but for the chain would clearly have torn their throats out'. When the teacher, Hugh Griffiths, tries to talk with Stella about why Charlie is so unhappy, he has a `weedly Welsh voice' she replies `I don't have time'.
One understands that it is Stella's mental and emotional state that is creating this overall impression but a few contrasts [perhaps a whistling Dai Morgan the Post?] might have made the point more even better. No wonder Max voices the opinion that `depressive illness is significantly more prevalent in this part of Wales than elsewhere in Europe. Except Scandinavia of course.' Or did he make this up?
Love, obsession, mental illness and the many-layered characteristics of human nature are the key themes of this novel in which the unreliability of mental illness and depression is allied to the inherent unreliability of Cleave's narration.
In the hands of a more sensitive writer and/or with greater focus on plot and character, this might have been a really compelling novel with distinctly Gothic elements [as befits its title]. As it stands, it is a rather gloomy and monotonous read, all the more surprising given that McGrath's father was Medical Superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital and the author grew up in its vicinity. 6/10.