Faultlines of a marriage laid bare in city suffering from its own breakdown
The title character of Patrick McGrath's latest novel is a highly-strung young book editor in Manhattan who's newly married to an older literary academic, Sidney, and is struggling to come to terms with an unhappy childhood dominated by an unloving father.
This is a familiar scenario for readers of this accomplished writer, who has made a specialty of exploring neurosis and other psychological faultlines, most famously in the acclaimed 1990 novel Spider (subsequently filmed by David Cronenberg), but also throughout most of his fiction – a preoccupation that may be connected to his upbringing as son of the medical superintendent of Broadmoor psychiatric hospital.
Trauma (the title of his last novel, published in 2008) is his recurring subject and unreliable narrators are a recurring device. Here there are two of them, the 12 chapters divided equally between Constance and Sidney, neither of whom earns complete trust as they make their separate claims on your sympathies.
Yet for all her waywardness and neediness, Constance – who's clearly in a fragile state, both emotionally and mentally – is a more appealing character than the controlling Sidney, who keeps telling us what a good person he is and how even his weaknesses are an indication of that.
"I am a sentimental man," he pompously informs us early on, adding: "I feel too much, I always have."
Sidney, in fact, is positively unlikeable, boasting of his sexual prowess ("No postcoital tristesse in my bedroom") and dismissive of his wife's trauma ("the usual tedious story, a failure of approval from the parent"), and even though his tolerance is sorely tested when Constance begins to behave really badly with her sister's lover, it's hard to care about the predicament in which he's found himself.
The novel is set in the early 1960s and McGrath seems to be drawing a correspondence between the breakdown of a particular relationship and a more general breakdown in Manhattan itself, but recurring references to the wanton destruction of Penn Station seem a straining towards something that the thin storyline can't sustain.
Still, he tells his tale with the assurance of a master, so that even when you're losing patience with the emotional antics of Constance and Sidney, there's always that elegant and uncluttered prose to be savoured.