Top critical review
Gothic, with wonderful prose
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.