Patrick McGrath is an author whose career I have followed since I first read Asylum back in the late 90s. His writing often tackles the psychological impact of emotional trauma, sometimes by hinting at supernatural elements like spectres and shadowy figures from the past, often using unreliable narrators. In The Wardrobe Mistress McGrath tells the story of Joan Grice and her discovery that the man she had been living with for many years, recently deceased, had once been a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Last Days in Cleaver Square, his latest novel, also deals with fascism, only this time it’s from the viewpoint of Francis McNulty, a poet living in London in 1975, seeing out the last few months of his life. Written in the first person, we get hints that McNulty’s mind may be drifting away, through his contradictions and admissions, so when he reveals that he is sometimes visited by the ghost of Francisco Franco, the Spanish fascist dictator, it is easy to dismiss this as another element of the elderly man’s fracturing mind.
We learn that McNulty did live in Spain during the Civil War, like other writers such as Orwell, Hemingway and Lee, and that due to a tragic case of mistaken identity he has been carrying a burden of guilt for decades. McNulty’s scrambled recollections blend the past and present together, creating a dreamlike quality to his narration. McGrath, as ever, does a fine job of describing the historical elements, some of which are clearly defined; others – like the aspect of repressed homosexuality – are merely hinted at. After McNulty journeys to Madrid with his daughter and son-in-law, for one last visit to the city in which he spent so much time as a younger man, he manages to commit an act of atonement which lands him in trouble with the authorities, but goes some way towards counterbalancing his feelings of hatred towards Franco.
Last Days in Cleaver Square is a short novel, well-paced and nicely written, but one that delivers quite a punch and is a worthy of your time. Recommended.