Asylum by Patrick McGrath

asylum-by-patrick-mcgrath

According to the Guardian, this is a magnificent novel. It has certainly proven popular, which is cannot be gainsaid; indeed, this is the most objective evidence of a level of success. However, according to Kirkus Review McGrath is a “contemporary master of highbrow gothic fiction”, as well as “a worthy descendant of Poe”. In so far as there is a good story here, this may be the case, but the way it is told is in places very shoddy, with patches of purple prose that would make a discerning reader wince. And what Poe knew well was how to choose a narrator: how a story could best be told; McGrath’s choice of narrator, an arrogant and narrow-minded doctor who couldn’t have known half the details he nonetheless narrates, keeps the reader guessing throughout the novel: what’s going on here? What is the rationale for this choice? But, it turns out, there is none. The story relies on a level of immediate detail to which this narrator cannot legitimately have access, and the mystery and sense of objectivity generated by the choice of narrator, which Fitzgerald does with such skill in The Great Gatsby, is constantly undermined by how profoundly unpleasant he is as a human being, and how profoundly useless as a judge of character (the psychological insights of this psychiatrist are rather dull and unconvincing). Then Kirkus Review contends that McGrath “here takes things a level higher – producing fiction in the tradition of Henry James”. This really is not the case, but evidence of how easily book reviews leave reality behind and are far too eager to land on hyperbolic praise that has a glint of credibility. But McGrath is no Henry James. Nor is he a worthy descendent of Poe, in any meaningful sense; he’s just a writer of a fairly good story who wants to put a little bit of clear water between himself and the multitude of other such writers. However, I think the marketing department have gone a bit too far here, though readers of E A Poe and Henry James are unlikely to have been too put out. The reviewers should have focused on the novel’s central love story, which was at once original and compelling, a feat that really is worth announcing to the reading public.

Mr A

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