A Novel of the Revolution
By Patrick McGrath
Random House, $24.95
Reviewed by Ellen Emry Heltzel
Patrick McGrath likes to tell his stories through narrators who are anything but omniscient. Rather, they are human beings, sort of like the rest of us, so that getting the real story requires reading between their motives and misunderstandings.
In the past, the British-born novelist has used this device to gothic perfection: In both Grotesque and Asylum, the narrators tell dark tales with a conviction that gradually begins to look like obsession. In his new work, Martha Peake: A Novel of the Revolution, McGrath takes the same tack again.
This time, however, the tale teller is a narrator once-removed, the nephew beckoned to the brooding manse by the dying uncle who feels compelled to unburden his soul before he dies. Such distance from the action is risky business for the author. And McGrath complicates things further with an ambitious plot that spans two continents and two contrary sensibilities.
The book begins as pure Edgar Allan Poe: Our narrator, Ambrose Tree, introduces himself with the brooding observation that history is "a black art," its practitioners destined for melancholy. But enough about me, he continues _ promising, we suspect, that Ambrose will never be far from sight.
The date: circa 1825. The place: Drogo Hall, Uncle William's estate outside London. And as William's only surviving relative, with dreams of inheritance dancing in his head, Ambrose is prepared to endure a few nights next to the roaring fire while Uncle bares his soul. Ushered into his uncle's presence, Ambrose turns to a giant painting of a bold, defiant Heathcliff that hangs above the mantel. It's Harry Peake, he is told. And therein lies Uncle's story.
Uncle William, we learn, spent his career as a surgeon with Lord Drogo, the renowned anatomist, who at his death left the surgeon his baronial trappings. Together, the two men discovered Harry, the former proud poet from Cornwall, now crippled following a tragic accident. Harry lives in the back alleys of London, where he displays his twisted spine to support himself and his spirited teenage daughter, Martha. From Drogo and William's viewpoint, Harry is no freak, but a gift to science. Together, they envision him as a specimen to display in Drogo's own Theatre of Anatomy, where the great Drogo performs human dissections before admiring colleagues.
Slowly, over successive nights and through Ambrose's bout with a fever, the nephew glimpses the horrible end Harry has in store. But first, he realizes, Drogo and William must dispense with the daughter. Her devotion to her father has to be broken, and so it is, with brutal force. Martha accepts William's invitation to go to America, where she arrives as a shot is heard 'round the world. Meanwhile, back at the ranch.
In Martha Peake, McGrath demonstrates his trademark ability to probe the layers of the human psyche against a lush backdrop of atmospherics. In Drogo Hall, the metaphor is clear: A "piece of flawless reasoning in stone" remains connected to the original building, which was "built in a manner suggestive not of the Age of Reason but of an earlier age, a Dark Age rather _ I speak of crockets and gargoyles, wavering roof lines and shagging brickwork, turrets, and a tower." Every character seems to be victim of his or her emotions, even Martha, whose "first impulse of rebellion" comes in response to her father's suffering. For both her and Harry, this is an almost primordial cry that echoes all the way to America, like a breath of fresh air blown into the musty crevasses of a pinched and cruel world. Thus, the reason behind the war for independence, and, indeed, for the book's title.
What started out as a gothic tale of diabolical evil evolves into allegory, with Harry's bent spine representing the king's subjects. Drogo Hall and Harry's miserable fate represent the corrupt ways of the Old World, and Martha's escape the promise of liberty offered by the New.
As a logistical matter, Martha's departure to America creates a problem for the story, because it makes the narrator even more distant from the action. Here, Ambrose is no longer telling his uncle's story, but Martha's as imagined from a packet of mildewed and crumbling letters she sent. This is a slender thread on which to build the novel's tension.
Just as important, however, is that while the ambitions of the American chapters are noble, they stand at odds with our appetite _ and McGrath's _ for dwelling on the dark side. Not surprisingly, we're tugged toward the dank, stone castle and the whirl of events there as if under the spell of Count Dracula. This is a curious situation for McGrath to put himself in, given his propensity to put id before ego in his characters. Why wouldn't the reader, like Ambrose, remain in the thrall of needing to know what horrible end was in store for Harry?
Fortunately, this miscalculation is not fatal to the pleasure of the reading experience. McGrath remains an uncommon storyteller and an expert at turning that old clich, "The truth is in the telling," on its ear. As a result, Martha Peake is a book that will take you far into the night _ a dark and stormy one, of course.
Ellen Emry Heltzel, the former book editor of the Oregonian, is treasurer of the National Book Critics Circle.