The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath | A topical read

Patrick McGrath showed up on the programme for the 2018 Festival of Writing and Ideas at Borris talking madness and menace with historian Roy Foster.  While I didn’t make it to the session entitled, ‘Gothic or What?’, I made a mental note to check out McGrath’s book, The Wardrobe Mistress. This week, I finally got around to reading it.

Set in post-war Britain in 1947, The Wardrobe Mistress opens with the funeral of actor Charles Grice. The mourners include Grice’s wife, Joan, who lends McGrath’s book its title, and their daughter, Vera.

Joan and Vera are the main characters in this novel along with actor Frank Stone, who who attracts Joan’s attention when he takes over her husband’s Malvolio character.

For the first 100 pages or so of this novel, I found it hard to connect with the characters and plot. There’s a point where Frank Stone,   “suddenly glimpsed that who he was — his very self — was as nothing.” That line seemed to me to sum up the opacity of the characters (at least as I experienced them) in the early part of the novel. But the pace does pick up and I found the second half of the book a faster and more interesting read.

The Wardrobe Mistress is topical at the moment in that Mosley’s fascist followers feature in the story line. I liked the historical references and also the way that McGrath handles the Grice’s daughter Vera’s role in The Duchess of Malfi.  But would I recommend The Wardrobe Mistress? I’m not sure. Probably ‘yes’ for anyone interested in the rise of right wing thinking after the war or for anyone interested in theatre or even for those who like a ghost story. 

It’s published by Penguin. I read a copy from my local public library. (Thank you Wicklow County Council Library Service).

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel | A dark but funny read

Hilary Mantel came to my notice back in 2012 when I fell in love with Wolf Hall. Since then, I’ve read a few of her earlier novels  including A Change of Climate and  Beyond Black. But, so far, nothing really matches Wolf Hall for me.

Beyond Black is about a medium called Alison Hart and her business manager, Colette.  Alison plies her trade in towns outside London, working with audiences and passing on messages from their dead relatives. She avoids the capital because she doesn’t like to work with ethnic communities who believe in reincarnation.

There are a lot of charlatans in Alison’s line of work, but she really does see dead people. She’s haunted by them, and not in a good way. She can’t get away from the dead and she sees things that her clients are better off not knowing.

This isn’t Hammer House of Horror scariness — if anything it’s more disturbing — because the dead continue to have the same traits they had while living. “You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy,” Alison tells Colette.

So Beyond Black is dark — particularly where Alison is haunted by the men her mother was involved with during Alison’s childhood. But it’s also funny, not least when Princess Diana puts in an appearance.

To some extent, Beyond Black reminds me of Will Self’s How the Dead Live, although I found Self’s book a faster and funnier read.

Beyond Black is published by Fourth Estate. Thanks to Wicklow County Council Library Service for the loan of a copy.

Genuine Fraud by E Lockhart

Like Lockhart’s earlier work, Genuine Fraud explore themes of privilege, truth and lies.

In an author’s note, E Lockhart lists her sources of inspiration for Genuine Fraud.  They include Victorian orphan stories, con artist tales and narratives of class mobility. She talks about stories told backwards and tales of female ambition. Much of this filters through into Genuine Fraud, the story of Jule West-Williams, a young con woman who exploits friendships for personal gain.

Jule is rather like the orphans in Dickens who engage in crime out of necessity. She sees herself as an action hero, physically and mentally strong yet she’s also vulnerable, living on her wits and in constant danger of being uncovered as a fraud.

Like Lockhart’s earlier novel, We Were Liars, Genuine Fraud explores themes of privilege, truth and lies. It’s a story of good and evil, privilege and want, elite and envy. It’s dark and twisty — a tale of self-invention and self-deception. It’s a fast and engaging read.

Jule spends a lot of time worrying about her origin story. She struggles between what she tells herself and what she tells others. Is she disturbed or is she simply dangerous? That’s the question you’ll ask yourself if you decide to read Genuine Fraud.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy via Netgalley.