Book review: Constance by Patrick McGrath

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PATRICK McGrath, notoriously, grew up in Berkshire in the grounds of a mental hospital.

Constance by Patrick McGrath

Bloomsbury Circus, 290pp, £18.99

His father was the medical director of Broadmoor high-security hospital where, at that time in the 1950s, electro-shock therapy was combined hopefully with remedial basket-weaving. McGrath’s reputation as a writer rests on a series of novels (Asylum, Trauma) which, for their dark mockery and themes of mental disarray, may reflect those far-off Broadmoor days.

Constance is set in New York in 1963, and predictably dilates on issues of bedlam and family dissipation. Constance Schuyler, a brittle woman, is oppressed by past failures and sorrows. Her father may have committed suicide and now she is in great distress. She lives a lonesome life in Manhattan as a publisher’s assistant, prim by nature and rather aloof.

At a party one day she meets a much older man, Professor Sidney Klein, who is mourning the failure of his second marriage. On the lookout for love, Klein appears to find it in Constance, who is looking for a father figure. In his trademark dark prose, 
McGrath explores the sibling rivalry between Constance and her younger sister Iris. In her sordid digs off the Bowery, Iris lives on pittances from her work as a nightclub hostess. She drinks to excess and sees a holiness in going down the drain.

Constance, for her part, is haunted by an unhappy childhood memory that her father Morgan loved Iris, but not her. The plot darkens with the weight of revelation on revelation. Morgan may not be Constance’s real “Daddy” after all, but an impostor figure. Can it be? A moribund and grouchy fellow, Morgan moulders away in the family home of “Ravenswood” in the Hudson Valley, an Edgar Allan Poe-like pile that radiates an air of supernatural grotesquerie.

Iris, drunk, wonders why Constance should think of her husband as Daddy. During their unhappy bouts of sex, Constance even insists that Professor Klein address her as Iris. Confused? (Freud would have a field day.) With its pages of flamboyant morbidity and Dürer-like imagination, the novel threatens at times to be frightful in another sense. Rarely have love lives appeared so blasted and disturbed.