'She cannot fade'
It's nice every now and then to read a book which isn't new, isn't a debut, hasn't been pushed by a publicist but rather brought to your attention by another avid reader. I've rewarded myself with a few of these recently and this novel by McGrath is one that John Self over at the Asylum has been going on about for years. It's always nice to start a book with the feeling that it's an almost surefire winner. Even nicer to finish it and feel the same way (It's worth mentioning however that I also finished this book feeling somewhat traumatised!).
From the very first page, the very first paragraph even, this book exhibits its main strength: a distinctive, engrossing and characterful narrative voice. In fact I shall be a terrible cheat I give you that first para to show what I mean.
I was in Elgin, upstairs in my study, gazing at the sea and reflecting, I remember, on a line of Goethe when Mrs. Gregor tapped at the door that Saturday and said there was a young man to see me in the surgery, a pilot. You know how she talks. "A pilot, Mrs Gregor?" I murmured. I hate being disturbed on my Saturday afternoons, especially if Spike is playing up, as he was that day, but of course I limped out onto the landing and made my way downstairs. And you know what that looks like - pathetic bloody display that is, first the good leg, then the bad leg, then the stick, good leg, bad leg, stick, but down I came, down the stairs, old beyond my years and my skin a grey so cachetic it must have suggested even to you that I was in pain, chronic pain, but oh dear boy not pain like yours, just wait now and we'll make it all - go - away -
There is so much information skilfully crammed into those few lines. Already we can see our narrator Dr Haggard looking exactly as his name suggests, we can visualise that descent down the stairs within that house dramatically close to 'black rocks and a churning sea'; we even have a reference to Goethe that hints towards the Gothic. Why is he old beyond his years, who is this pilot, who is Spike? We simply must read on to find out. Hats off to McGrath, it's a great beginning. Dr Haggard is a man given to reflection, a man who cannot stop thinking in fact about his affair with the wife of a colleague during his time as a trainee surgeon. This brief but cataclysmic affair is what drove him to this coastal retreat and life as a general practitioner and the arrival of the pilot, James, son of his ex-lover Fanny allows him to indulge even further his overblown obsession with the definitive relationship of his life. The novel's unsettling strangeness is hinted at in that trailing last sentence above, under what circumstances is this novel being recounted? The full horror of that won't be revealed until the final page but one of the great joys of this novel is the way in which that caring narrative voice of Dr Haggard's will be slowly transformed into something much darker, fitting much better with the gothic surroundings of Elgin.
It is at a funeral that Haggard first sets eyes on Fanny, who will later become his lover, a few glances at each other 'and I think you might say from that point forward I was done for. I was lost.' Their private exchanges about passion at a dinner party lay the groundwork for a fast-developing affair and the rational medical man Haggard is soon transformed by the love he conceives for her; 'where before there was only the dark force of nature, with its absolute imperative of disease, suffering and death, now there was grace.' That idea of a love conceived is worth noting. The naive Haggard enthusiastically embraces Fanny's notion of passion as 'the best we’re capable of' and it is with an almost religious zeal that he commits himself to their
Love, for me, is not ephemeral, it is not a transient emotion, a passing state, a passage or flight into madness or ecstasy; I see it, rather, as an exalted or even sacred condition, a condition in which all the highest and best of human faculties are exercised. Your mother had said to me the night we met that passion was not a sickness, not a disease, but was, rather, the best we were capable of, civilized human beings. Ironically, it was I who came to embrace the idea, while she -
Another trailing sentence there that hints at the end of the affair and we know that an awful lot happens in a period of a few months to send Haggard to Elgin, a broken man. He might have done well to remember that biblical phrase, 'Physician, heal thyself' (in one important way he does, far too literally), but the crumbling Elgin becomes an extension of his own ravaged body, haunted by her memory, her spirit 'more in possession of the house' than he is; 'a museum of nostalgia.'
Oh what are you doing? I asked myself. Isn't there something ridiculous about all this - you feed your obsession with this woman with morphia until you're unable to think of anything else, you can't sleep, you can't even stay in the house - as though Elgin were your own head, your own mind - as though by escaping Elgin you can escape the thoughts and feelings and memories that roil and turn endlessly, endlessly in that mind - it's not romantic at all!
McGrath unveils the story of Haggard's passion masterfully. The language is pitch-perfect for the 1930's and 40's period and the slow build of the novel's gothic atmosphere helps transform it into something else entirely. I cannot stress enough the perverse pleasure of seeing things become darker and darker. I say perverse because as much as we must recoil towards the novel's conclusion we have to accept that all along this has been a book about compassion as well as passion, and of love and humanity. Dr Haggard is an extraordinary fictional creation, one that helps make a novel that entertains and terrifies in equal measure. If you fancy a book that challenges those notions I have mentioned above, a book written brilliantly and structured like an escalating nightmare, then I have no hesitation in recommending this one. And don't just take my word for it.