Review: Last Days in Cleaver Square

A new book by Patrick McGrath is, I am assured, one of those writers who can pull apart our darkest fears and expose them to us without making us flee them, to paraphrase New Statesman. 

I can see why his work is popular. In this story, an old man, Francis McNulty, is coming to terms with the realities of his 1970s life. His daughter is finally moving out. Gillian lives with him in Cleaver Square, the old house McNulty inherited from his father, but she is going to marry, and will move to live with her husband. And since her father is growing more irrational, foolish and drunk, she doesn’t think he should live there on his own. He should join her and her husband in their new, pleasant house in Lord North Street. Sounds like a plan.

Except, of course, it isn’t. McNulty has history in the place in Cleaver Square. His life is there, his memories. 

And not only memories of his childhood. Because we are told in the first chapter that he has a visitor. This is 1975, and Franco, the Generalissimo, fascist ruler of Spain, the man responsible for the deaths of so many communists in the civil war, is dying, and because of that, he is dropping in on McNulty.

No, it’s not the Generalissimo in person: rather, it’s a smelly, unpleasant figure. Always obvious, always unsettling. Especially to Gillian, who cannot see Franco and thinks her father’s going potty. 

It’s not a pleasant thing to have an enemy from your past turn up and sit at the end of your bed, and it’s not surprising that it makes McNulty rather cranky. Because when he was a young man, McNulty went to war, to fight against Franco, and he saw much of the brutality and horror of warfare while he was there. Not only that, he has his own secret from those times, which he still carried about with him. He hasn’t told anyone else, but just now a reporter has started to make his acquaintance, and the young man is fascinated with McNulty’s past and the history of the civil war. 

This is a story told very well, although I did have the feeling I had read it before. The basic premise of the story, a man who is reaching the end of his life, and who doesn’t want to shed his memories and his house, who is attempting to cope with the departure of his sensible, pragmatic daughter, and who dreads being left alone, feels very familiar. Throw in the general comments on Fascism, Nazis and the evils of the Right, and it reads very much like a number of stories from the last forty-odd years, but that is to denigrate the book unfairly. It’s better than that, and it brings a different focus. It brings home the loneliness and existential fear of a man who knows he’s soon to die; a man, furthermore, who has a horrible secret which he has clung hold of for all his adult life, and who now, paradoxically, feels the need to share it. 

This was a book I had not expected to enjoy, and it was not exactly a rip-roaring read – but it was a considered, thoughtful analysis of an old man and his last thoughts and impressions, his reflections on a long life, and comparing that with those who didn’t survive to see it. And yes, it was gripping, it was insightful, it was a take on a hideous period. 

Only two comments – why use a dash instead of quote marks for all dialogue? Does that just save time in case a film company wants to have a script? And second, yes, this was good. Very good. But I really think stories about good vs evil being simplified as bold communists vs evil Fascists has been done to death. 

So not a “highly recommended”, but a well-worth-reading story. 

Comments
5 Responses to “Review: Last Days in Cleaver Square”
  1. marcusvaldes241 says:

    Didn’t James Joyce use the dashes in Ulysses as well?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very likely – and that wouldn’t endear the approach to me. I’m reminded of Mrs Joyce’s comment to her husband, “Why don’t you write books people can read?”

      Like

      • marcusvaldes241 says:

        Haha–agreed. I sold a copy of that book recently and that is the ONLY reason I know that. I thought the dashes were strange and it was the first time I had ever seen them used like that.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have to admit, I have handled copies of Ulysses a few time, and glanced inside a few times, and never felt the need to struggle my way through it!

        Like

  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Another great review – not mine…

    Liked by 1 person

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