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3.3 out of 5 stars
3.3 out of 5 stars
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on 12 March 2005
I wont bother to elaborate on the facts of the book as there are already enough good reviews.
It is sufficient to say that you "must" read this book if only for the revelations right at the very end.
As ever with Mcgrath one has a sense of impatience to get to the end, but you still want to savour every turn of phrase on the pages.
I just loved the ending.
Hes an absolute master and I cant wait for the next book!
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I found Patrick McGrath directly through Amazon's SO useful review guidelines, when I spotted a review for another book VERY in accord with my own feelings, and checked out the reviewer to see what else they were reading (thankyou Phillipe Horak from Zug!!!)

Now the Amazon review system has introduced me to a new writer for me, and I shall definitely be reading more!

Something about McGrath's style, and also the subject matter - the central character is an artist - reminded me of a couple of William Boyd's books - Any Human Heart and The New Confessions - both in 'obsessive love' territory, and explorations into the 'selfishness obsessiveness' of the artistic drive itself. And as someone who rates Boyd VERY highly, to say McGrath stands comparison is for me to rate this highly.

The only reason I couldn't 5 star this is that something - and annoyingly I couldn't work out precisely WHAT, stopped me from believing in the narrator's gender. McGrath writes the story of two obsessive, driven artists, Jack Rathbone and Vera Savage, driven both by their art and their relationship with each other, through the eyes of Jacks older sister Gin. I kept being uncomfortably shocked, from time to time, when the 'sister' relationship was mentioned - because the narrator's voice seemed definitely male, not female to me.

The book is written in a cool, slightly disengaged manner, which actually works well, given the febrile and excessive nature of the two main characters and plot drivers.
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on 20 May 2004
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.
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on 4 September 2016
A friend gave me Port Mungo, saying “it's all about character.” She knows I value character over plot in a book. Of course, it's always best to have some of both. It is all about character -- or at least, it's both character and prose.

There is a plot, and it's important to the novel, especially to the ending, but you could relate it in just a few paragraphs. And it's so scrambled that you need to figure it out after you've finished the book -- if you care enough to bother. This is the kind of book that book clubs are useful for: the group can piece together what happened better than an individual reader.

I do like character-based novels but I need to feel something for the characters. I didn't like or care about these, none of the five: husband, wife, two daughters, and the husband's sister. That's quite a feat for the author, because I nearly always like at least the protagonist, even if he or she is hugely flawed. And it's not that they were too evil for me, even the 2 protagonists. I just couldn't relate to either of them. They weren't portrayed sympathetically, probably intentionally.

When I'd almost finished the book, I looked up Patrick McGrath’s novels on Goodreads and discovered they're considered to be ‘gothic’. I might have read this one differently if I'd known that. I might have expected what the author delivered. The gothic nature wasn't clear to me until the very end. What is clear is that I don't like dark creepy novels.

The most creepy thing about this story is that it's about a man, Jack, but narrated by his sister Gin. No sister should know her brother as intimately as Gin knows Jack. There are nods to ‘as Jack told me later,’ but they aren't enough to explain the knowledge Gin has. And Jack should not have related all that to his sister, if he did. Gin as herself is hardly portrayed; she is all about her relationship to Jack.

The book reminded me a lot of Sarah Waters’ books, at least The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests. Waters’ books have more plot but they're similar in gradually revealing the twisted nature of the protagonists, similar in throwing out clues along the way to the characters and the story's outcome, even as the basic plot continues linearly. I'm already planning to recommend this to a friend who likes Waters’ books.

But I did love the writing, and for that reason alone I'm glad to have read Port Mungo. The author has an incredible ability to convey a thought or an atmosphere vividly and in few words. I wanted to highlight sentences and paragraphs all the way through. In terms of turns of phase, it's one of the best books I've read. It's a pity McGrath doesn't write my kind of novel, because I'd love to read more of his prose.
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on 15 December 2014
Phew! An intense and gothic novel of twisted passions, all acted out within the claustrophobic confines of that most artistically fecund of contexts - the family. Not the very best novel I've ever read, but a good and compulsive read, and well written, and my first McGrath.
The narrator is herself well under the spell of the main character, her toxically egotistical artist-brother Jack, and it's not long before the reader smells a rat in the way she continually re-calibrates her interpretations of what she sees and hears about him. Jack's long time mistress Vera is just too conveniently available as a scapegoat. 
Without regurgitating the plot and giving away the ending, I found the characters sufficiently well-described and believable to engage me, as was the sense of place in descriptions of the Caribbean and of New York city as backdrops to the events. Interesting that some reviewers on this site have criticised both these aspects of the book, one even finding the denouement "laughable". Ah well, proof that reader response is as variable as individual temperament and life-experience, and sometimes our reactions are suspicious in themselves. Perhaps some find the messiness of human emotional life - its desires, and the rationalisations of those desires along with wilful ignorance of our real motivations - too uncomfortable to reflect upon for long. When I read that the author's father was superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital for the criminally insane I wondered if this goes some way to explaining McGrath's compulsion to dig so deeply not just into pathological behaviour but into the lengths those associated with such behaviour - witnesses and perpetrators alike - will go to protect themselves from acknowledging how implicated they are in the ensuing situations. It is sobering to admit our own complicity in the part we may have played in creating monsters such as (look away now - this IS a bit of a spoiler...) Jack Rathbone. It's a theme that seems to me eminently suitable for exploring via the medium of the novel.
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on 12 February 2012
Port Mungo is told largely in flashbacks, by Gin, sister of artist Jack Rathbone. Theirs is a privileged childhood, eccentric and lacking in structure, followed by art school in London. At seventeen Jack begins a passionate affair with Vera Savage, an older artist, and together they head for the New York art scene. But instead of finding inspiration for their painting, they feel suffocated by the city and go South, ending up at Port Mungo on the Gulf of Honduras. There Vera descends into alcoholism, drifting off on 'adventures' and leaving Jack to bring up their two daughters. When Peg, their elder daughter, dies Jack is unable to cope and it's Gin, now living in New York, who picks up the pieces. Gerald, the older Rathbone brother, arrives and insists on taking Jack's younger daughter Anna back to Surrey.

Years later Jack is living with Gin and working from her studio loft, when Anna turns up unexpectedly. She wants to meet her parents, and find out what really happened to Peg. As the story gradually unfolds, we are drawn into the chaotic, bohemian lifestyle of Port Mungo and begin to question whose version of the truth is the most reliable.

I found this book thoroughly absorbing. Some reviewers have commented on the lack of artistic authenticity in a novel about two painters, but I thought McGrath managed to create an absorbing story which wasn't overloaded with technical or historical detail. Most of all, I found the oppressive atmosphere and the intense relationships entirely convincing. I love McGrath's writing style, so will definitely read another of his novels.
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I bought this book because I thought it was a novel about art and the Caribbean. In fact, it's a rather predictable and depressing story about sexual abuse and artistic selfishness, with a colourless narrator, who observes the action from a jaded viewpoint. Gin Rathbone (the narrator) and her brother Jack are a pair of wealthy, spoilt would-be artists, who are both (particularly Jack) fascinated by sex. (We hear a great deal, in unintentionally comic prose, about Jack's endowment). Following a comfortable upbringing in Suffolk, they drift off to art school in London, where Jack becomes infatuated with tough Glaswegian painter Vera Savage, and runs away with her first to New York, then Havana, then the seedy river town Port Mungo in the Gulf of Honduras. Although from McGrath's scanty descriptions the town sounds unappealing and unattractive (and horribly humid) Jack insists that they stay there for nearly twenty years, and bring up their daughters Peg and the much younger Anna there. Peg's death by drowning at the age of 16 (which Jack claims is Vera's fault) splits up the family, and brings Jack back to live with Gin, who's now given up art and given in to a life of decadence in New York. There they live in an uneasy peace together, while Vera wanders restlessly and Anna is brought up by Gin and Jack's responsible older brother. Anna's reappearance years later stirs up old memories, and leads Vera to at last reveal what really happened in Port Mungo - with devastating consequences.

The mystery in the novel is well set-out, if predictable, and McGrath certainly has a skilful and even sometimes atmospheric writing style (hence the three stars). But this is also a deeply annoying book. McGrath takes the cliched view that artists are almost always drunken, promiscuous, unwashed and unable to maintain any kind of domestic life - not true if you look at real-life examples. The novel is pretty sexist - none of the women are able to hold down careers (Gin gives up painting, Vera, despite her toughness, collapses into alcoholism and refuses to leave her appalling husband, Anna and Peg both dabble but never achieve anything in their own right) and all are obsessed with sex. Mind you, the men are not much better - we're told that Jack isn't really talented, and all the other male characters are either weak or sexual predators. McGrath's need to keep up a constant atmosphere of foreboding, hinting at Great Evil to Come, can lead to a tone which (as one Guardian review noted) is almost comic - this novel just takes itself way too seriously for such a slight work. And Peg is so thinly sketched that her death has little significance, thus ruining the emotional heart of the book. Port Mungo itself never really comes to life - all we learn is that it's hot, swampy and unhealthy, and that Jack did a lot of sub-Gauguin paintings there. In the end, despite its sombre subject, this felt a rather slight work, about a set of spoilt and unpleasant people behaving badly, rather than the grand tragedy I think McGrath intended. Not sure I'll revisit this author.
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on 1 October 2007
One of the reviewers mentioned William Boyd's "Any Human Heart". How I wished this book had been a tenth as good as that fine novel. Sadly, it's not. In fact, it's quite astonishingly bad, especially compared with some of his earlier fiction. I would concede that it's extremely difficult to write about the artistic process, and harder still to describe the inner and outer life of a painter in particular. Sadly, McGrath fails dismally. At no time was either Jack or Vera convincingly portrayed. Instead of real characters we had ciphers and, worse than that, stereotypical ciphers. There's absolutely no sense of time or place - for the first hundred pages or so I thought it was set in Victorian times. And the resolution - please spare us another inappropriate liaison. What's just as bad is that the book was littered with comma splices - a sure sign of a writer well outside their comfort zone.
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on 3 July 2004
McGrath's overbaked novel is long on intense psychological scrutiny and short on artistic authenticity, or character development. This is surprising, considering the author's reputation for fleshing out fictional figures. But much of this novel is plain fatuous, unsure and uninformed about the true lives of painters and the art they make. McGrath is unable to at all communicate much about the paintings that his various characters supposedly live through--a large error in such a work in which the comprehension of the players is insistently said to exist in their art. This gambit falls flat. For a book with such alluring locations as post-war London, Abstract Expressionist New York in the 1950s and 60s, and a far-flung tropical port, there is a disappointing and ultimately lazy lack of local color, atmosphere, and description, in favor of endless musings about characters, and their self-importance, characters who grow less likable and compelling page after page. Forget the plot. The ending is an attempt at the dramatic macabre but is plain ridiculous and unbelievable--it inspires giggles not chills. Worse--in one of the few actual artistic references the author cites Manet instead of Monet--a freshman art history error. Enough. Leave Port Mungo and its simmering simplicities alone. I took it to Bermuda on the recommendation of esteemed critics in London's Observer on Sunday, and ended up throwing it out the window. Should have stuck with Iris Murdoch...
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on 23 December 2004
In his novel, Mr McGrath tells the story of painter Jack Rathbone, a figure similar to the latter-day Paul Gauguin. The narrative is performed in an emotional manner by his sister Gin. Jack's life as an artist starts in London where he attends St Martin's School of Art with his sister. But one day, at the age of seventeen, Jack falls under the spell of Vera Savage, a thirty year old artist from Glasgow. He is immediately attracted by her petulant manner, her flamboyant character although it quickly appears that this woman is neither very clean nor often sober. Gin deeply resents this "painted creature" but she can do nothing to prevent his brother from following Vera to New York. There, Jack is profoundly unhappy, sensing that Vera belongs to a world which offers no place for him, which even rejects him and Jack finds himself tramping the streets with a feeling of anger and misery.
Finally Jack and Vera decide to take a passage to Cuba but due to some political unrest, they are forced to leave the island and end up in Port Mungo in Honduras. There, in spite of being engaged in a torrid and complicated love affair with his wife, Jack can finally devote himself entirely to his painting. Their two daughters Peg and Ann are brought up in their parents' chaos. It is mainly Jack who raises them because Vera succumbs to infidelity and alcoholism and her chronic restlessness makes her an impossible mother. After their return to New York 20 years later, the sequels of the time they spent in Port Mungo are still there, notably Peg's death which is surrounded by a halo of mysterious circumstances.
In Mr McGrath's novel, human beings are held in a thrall by love, hatred, secrecy, art and complicity and despite their efforts they are unable to escape their fate.
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