on 13 September 2000
Patrick McGrath's last two novels - the masterly "Dr. Haggard's Disease" and "Asylum" - both charted the collapse of love under intolerable conditions. And though his latest novel also fulfils this promise, it is probably the only way it can be likened to his previous works.
Here the love coming to an end is between parent and child, in two senses: that of disfigured smuggler Harry Peake for his daughter Martha, and that of the parent country England for its ungrateful child, America.
With "Martha Peake" McGrath steps further back in time - and further away from London - than ever before. His previous books have revelled in the fog and vapours of early 20th century England. This time he takes us to America in the late 18th century, as rebellion is fomenting in the colonies.
The novel is told in retrospect, 50 years on, from the point of view of Ambrose Tree, nephew of Sir William Tree who was the assistant to the great anatomist Lord Drogo. Drogo had a special place in his heart for Harry Peake and his twisted spine, although Ambrose is not quite certain that his interests were altogether altruistic... Soon he comes to distrust his uncle's narrative altogether, and takes over the telling of the American tale himself. However, as he has nothing to go on but a few illegible scraps of letters sent home by Martha Peake, the reader soon realises that, as far as unreliable narrators go, well, it takes one to know one...
If the book has more plot and action, and a broader canvas than his earlier work - and on the surface appears altogether more ambitious - it suffers too. It is a less subtle, delicate work than we are used to from McGrath, and the writing remains at its most lively when we are in London. There is less to chew on psychologically than in "Asylum", so though it is a work worth reading - he's incapable, after all, of writing a bad sentence - it should not be considered representative. Read it, but read them all.
on 28 August 2007
Martha Peake, published in 2000, is an epic set in the late 18th Century. The story is related by Ambrose Tree while on a visit to his aged uncle William Tree, a retired surgeon and ex assistant to the great anatomist and fellow surgeon Lord Drogo. Ambrose is summoned to his uncle's sprawling mansion where William starts to relate the tale of Harry Peake, the doomed smuggler and poet, and his loyal daughter Martha, a saga which took place only decades before.
From the start, an unreliability factor is built in. Ambrose's uncle is frail and tires easily, and early on, Ambrose takes on the task of embellishing the story himself and writing it down, using his imagination to depict events and emotions.
Harry Peake works the Cornish coast with his cronies, and his life as a smuggler involves copious imbibing of the alcohol he offloaded. Tragedy strikes when a horrific accident kills his wife and breaks Harry's spine, leading to a permanent severe disfigurement of his back. Harry and Martha move to London. Responsible for the fate of his dead wife, Harry is consumed by guilt, and, despite support and love from his daughter, enters a self-destructive spiral of alcoholism.
McGrath pulls all the stops out to create an evocative, eighteenth century epic. The filthy horror of vile, stinking, sewage-infested London is eloquently conjured up by place names - Cripplegate - and the beery, leery baseness of some of its inhabitants by people's monikers - Moll and Sal Goat. There are shudderingly vivid descriptions of unsalubrious settings: a 'seething crowd of poets and apprentices, footpads and strumpets, butchers, fops and sailors' in a bar bursting with merry revellers keen to gawp at the disfigured Harry, where, at one table, 'three old printers wagered farthings racing lice picked with inky fingers from one another's wigs.'
At times, McGrath almost oversteps the mark. Everything is melodramatic, from Harry's roots as the 'bastard' child of wild 'whore and drunkard' Maggie Peake, who lived in a deserted hut by the sea, to the fates of Harry and Martha. Credulity is stretched at times - would a boy brought up as a liar and thief as a child really take to poetry and books after the trauma of losing his mother at 12, simply because of a kind vicar benefactor? And if he did show that self awareness, strength and ability to convert, why would he fall so spectacularly into dependency and oblivion later, at a time when he had the constant succour of his adoring daughter? Can alcohol make a person enact violence that is not in their nature? The underlying premise for Harry's fateful act of hideous violation - that a good man sober, he could never have contemplated doing what he did drunk - seems flawed to me, designed to allow a decent, unfortunate man to change his fate catastrophically yet remain absolved of vileness, a sympathetic character the reader roots for.
Events when Martha escapes to America are also rich in action and character. People with names such as Clapsaddle, Coffin and Crow crop up. Most characters are either two dimensionally good and nurturing or nasty, envious and petty. Again, plausibility is pulled to the point of incredulity, even allowing for the fact that Ambrose Tree's version may be more theatrical than what actually happened. Yet despite the self-conscious 'legendary epic' feel of the story, it is done well - I remained gripped even as I knew it was all far fetched extravagance.
When SPOILER: Martha's son by her father is born with her father's acquired spinal defect, the credulity factor is frayed to snapping point and the reader is acutely aware that the story is supposition and fairy tale . The intelligent reader knows that environmentally acquired defects can't be passed on genetically, only genetically determined ones can. Maybe McGrath double bluffs us; perhaps he wants us to use this highly unlikely event as evidence that the tale is all being made up by Ambrose and William Tree to stress the unreliability of the narration. But once narrators become this unbelievable, the reader wonders what the point is of reading on if it's all just baloney in much the same way as in Ishiguro's excellent but flawed When We Were Orphans, one kept thinking that related events could not possibly have occurred. Perhaps Martha's baby's spinal defect was simply a result of his being a product of incest - malformations are certainly common in babies born of incestuous unions, but the coincidence of it being exactly the same malformation that his father had acquired through accident seems hugely, embarrassingly unlikely.
If rip-roaring eighteenth century epics are your thing, you will probably love this book, stuffed as it is with salty character and fulsome event. If not, it is still an entertaining read as long as you leave rational analysis at the door.
on 8 October 2000
Although the novel is named after his daughter, the crippled figure of Harry Peake also shares the limelight of this narrative. Indeed, part of the novel concerns his life as a kind of sideshow freak, reduced to bearing his huge misshapen spine in public taverns for penitence and charity. Harry has much to be sorry for: when he was a Cornish smuggler, he caused the death of his wife, and Martha's mother, by fire, his back broken in an attempt to rescue her. He's awoken from a drunken slumber by oily smoke emanating from fleeces of wool, a metaphor for the smuggling trade and England's wealth. With the death of his wife, his children go to stay with his wife's sister, all except Martha, who clings to her father. Together, father and daughter head off into London, there to seek a living and penance in the filthy metropolis. Years pass, and Martha comes to maturity. Harry gains fame as the 'Cripplegate Monster', and excels in his vocation as bard and performer of oral ballads about an American patriot. Unfortunately, one of the bills advertising Harry's performances falls into the hands of Lord Drogo and his assistant, William Tree. Drogo is one of the country's leading anatomists, and his professional curiosity is aroused by Harry's misshapen back.
This new attention comes at a bad point in Harry's life, as his penance has come to a natural end. The succour of drink seems to resume its old attraction for him. And now a patron with money arrives on the scene. Drogo's attentions demean Harry. Drogo shows him off as a medical spectacle to other doctors, something which hurts as much as the Schoolteacher's measuring of bodies in Toni Morrison's 'Beloved'. Badly distilled gin fumes Harry's descent into Hell. Even Martha is forced to flee to Drogo Hall. But just as Harry cannot reject his need for drink, so are his other desires inflamed...
The novel is mainly narrated by Ambrose Tree, William Tree's nephew, who is set to inherit Drogo Hall. This narrative is very much tainted by a fertile Romantic imagination: the sublime and the picturesque are very much in evidence here in this story of colonial Gothic. You can't help but think that Ambrose has read maybe a little too much Otranto, too much Mrs. Radcliff, and also that he's a little before his time (Ambrose seems to be writing Bronte-style twenty years before that melancholy brood got published). He's just as wimpish and feeble as the lonely traveller who stumbles across Wuthering Heights, even if he is named after the vicious protagonist of Matthew Lewis' 'The Monk'. And as unreliable narrators go, well, I certainly wouldn't trust Ambrose with my prized possessions. However, there is not just the one unreliable narrator in this novel, but three, since William Tree also narrates the story, and Silas Rind, Martha Peake's protector in America, also plays a huge role in her tale. There are some letters from Martha Peake, but they are old and decaying fifty years after they are written, and not even a sentence of her comes to us direct.
Patrick McGrath, in his bid to write a Gothic novel, has studied the classics of old and all the theory that surrounds them. Hence Harry wondering around like Mary Shelley's Monster with a map of America transcribed across his back in a none too subtle way. I thought all the cartoons of this era featuring similar monstrous proletariats were to due with fears of an English revolution made on the French model, not the American one. Still, the later Gothic novels, like 'Dracula', did feature colonialism (with Englishmen threatened with invasion from the east only to be saved by a fertile American). Why not go the whole hog, McGrath seems to reason, and throw the American colonies into the mixture and see what happens? The Gothic form is supreme in America now, what with their Muldurs and Buffys staking everything in sight. In this way, there seems to be too much rationale behind this novel of Unreason.
Where McGrath is at his strongest though, is in the depiction of the brutality of the redcoats. He really does succeed in enabling us to smell the smoke and be repelled by the heat of the fire. Some American patriots, however, would have good reason to question the tone of Martha's role in the Revolution. Having said that, in my research, I did come across one website which suggested that Molly Pitcher may not have fired that cannon. On the whole, however, I am much of the tendency to believe that such stories are true. Certainly Ambrose Tree is a far more paranoid listener than I. It could be that McGrath is pouring doubt on the oral tradition so beloved of Harry Peake, and if so, that would be a great shame, especially in the light of Alistair MacLeod's recent brilliant novel 'No Great Mischief'. However, the employment of unreliable narrators has been very much a Gothic tradition, from Rider Haggard's 'She' to that wondrous narrator in Hogg's 'Confessions of a Justified Sinner'. And although Ambrose disavows all knowledge of Harry Rind Peake, you can't help but wonder whether this novel should be named after him, rather than Martha, and that there is something that his uncle has neglected to tell him.
But if we're talking about the denial of psychological and narrative closure here, and of a modern day novelist attempting to write in the Gothic form, then I must confess that I much prefer Joanne Harris' approach in 'Sleep, Pale Sister' (author of recent hit 'Chocolat'). Patrick McGrath's novel seems as botched as Harry's back in comparison. The trouble with having Martha's and Harry's story narrated for them is that you never really get to see the world through their eyes, and as such, they are so far distant from the reader that they may as well be in the New World.