By Patrick McGrath
Bloomsbury 2008 pp210 £15.99
by Alice Cook
Patrick McGrath’s new novel Trauma continues a longstanding preoccupation with madness, incarceration and psychiatry most familiar from his earlier works Dr Haggard’s Disease and Asylum. Billed as a psychological thriller, McGrath’s skills lie in the cool and polished way he peels away the layers of confusion and disturbance in his characters. Added to this, his ‘unreliable’ narrator and trademark gothic touches lead to an assured tale in which the reader feels in safe hands from the start.
Set in the New York of the 1970s Trauma features Charlie Weir, a psychiatrist specialising in trauma with Vietnam veterans, in which the stories of Weir’s clients and that of himself unfold in parallel narratives. In the wrecked lives of the veterans he treats, war experiences are re-lived daily, years later. The focus is on the spiralling downwards of two of his clients, one the brother of Weir’s wife, who commits suicide while in group therapy and another who jumps from a building and survives. Weir’s own life mirrors this downward path. Unable to
shed his fixation on his early family history we learn of his hatred of his drifter father, love and loathing for his mother and his complex relationship with his older brother, now a successful artist. Muddled memories and hazy dreams of his own childhood trauma continue to plague Charlie as his marriage collapses, his clients disintegrate and his girlfriend falls prey to nightmares and violent outbursts.
A Manhattan backdrop, references to the squalor of New York and frequent nods and reminders of the Twin Towers (even though the action takes place in the 1970s) lead us into street-scapes of rubbish and decay and the sense of incipient collapse. Charlie’s own demise is signalled by his brother-in-law’s suicide, although there is an abiding sense of the precarious nature of sanity and the possibility that at any moment any one of the characters could slip, or jump, into an abyss.
McGrath’s Freudian pointers are somewhat clunky; for example the air in
Charlie’s mother’s basement ‘smelled stale and slightly rancid’. He adds: ‘It would have been a dull-witted psychiatrist who failed to recognise this as a representation of the unconscious mind’. In fact the psychological back story in which issues around trauma therapy are explored is weaker than that of Charlie’s own web of dysfunctional relationships, and as the novel proceeds we realise we are reading about his own unpicking of a personal trauma narrative rather than that of his clients.
The book’s strength is in the escalation of a steamy claustrophobic atmosphere and deft, careful characterisation along with the developing parallel worlds of his characters. This is not to discount the unsavoury pleasure to be derived from watching a man who trades in psychological insight unravelling through lack of self-knowledge; Trauma delivers this in spades. From his attempt to be his girlfriend’s therapist to the final revelation about what really happened to him as a child, Charlie Weir stumbles downwards within his own alienated mind-scape. Oddly, given the restrained and accomplished tone of the novel, it failed to deliver a sense of true threat and menace. This reviewer simply did not care too much about what happened to Charlie, and found the gothic ‘reveal’ at the end somewhat unsatisfying and hurried. Nonetheless, this is a rewarding and interesting novel from an assured writer.