The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath review – postwar gothic | Books

Patrick McGrath is a master of the grotesque, perhaps best known for his expressionistically unreliable narrators, their overheated identities dying like flies on flypaper in front of the reader. His second novel, Spider, was filmed in 2002 by David Cronenberg; his ninth is a love story set in London just after the second world war. We open with the funeral of famous actor Charles “Gricey” Grice. It’s 1947, a bitterly cold day in Golders Green. England sees itself as “morally magnificent and economically broke”. The dramatis personae immediately begins to scroll: Joan, the eponymous wardrobe mistress, Gricey’s wife of 30 years, a “striking-looking woman” and a formidable one; their actor daughter Vera, soon to be a star, “in dark glasses and a black fur coat”; Vera’s husband Julius Glass, “the former impresario”, who seems to have brought his mistress too, and looms “close over his women like a kind of yellow marsh heron”.

With a sentence or two, McGrath has caught our attention. The narrative hurries smoothly along, building the world, revealing the character of the characters. But the narrating voice is another matter entirely. Like the theatrical chorus the reader already suspects it to be, this cuts in regularly in the first person plural, to insist that what you’re seeing isn’t quite what you’re being shown. Each time the narrative finds its stride, encouraging the reader to immerse in the wardrobe mistress’s plight, there’s a check, a qualification. It’s a technique that might become irritating but that pays off steadily as it quantifies and reveals the darkness that underpinned Gricey’s life. “We’d all loved Gricey,” the chorus confides, as the funeral plays itself out, a little bit of social theatre in itself. And then immediately: “Some of us had, anyway.”

That’s going to be the puzzle, of course: who loved the dead man and who didn’t? And who was Gricey, anyway? The last part he played was Malvolio, that “victim of small minds. Driven half mad and shut up in a dark room.” In her grief, his widow begins first to wear his clothes, then re-tailor them for Frank Stone, the young understudy who perfectly imitates Gricey as the puritanical narcissist of Twelfth Night; and who, attracted to the widow, takes on the dead man’s part in other ways too. To these stories – the doomed romance and the tale of possession by dybbuk, the furious dead soul of Jewish myth – is soon added a third: we’re ushered into the milieu of street politics, antisemitism and continuity-fascism in London after the war.



Patrick McGrath … ‘good at London, love and bad weather’. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

McGrath is good at London, love and bad weather. He’s good at cups of tea, rented rooms both cold and stuffy, and packets of Senior Service. Expressed as a smell of soft coal and cigarette smoke, 1947 hangs over the book. He also writes some of the most nauseating, disquieting food you can imagine: “A Spam-and-onion sandwich on lard, in thick slices, wrapped in newspaper.” Meanwhile, his way with characterisation is very much his own, often more reminiscent of the arts biographer than the novelist. Julius’s mysterious female relative Gustl is “no materialist. She was German. Deep strains of Germanic thought and feeling coursed through her allegedly impure veins. She’d read Kant and Schiller as a child.”

So what’s really happening in the wardrobe mistress’s wardrobe? Has her husband returned in some literal sense? Or only metaphorically, as an artefact of the daughter’s incestuous infatuation, the widow’s loneliness, the understudy’s ardent mimicry? More importantly, perhaps, who was he when he was alive? Well, who are any of us, McGrath’s chorus might respond. Constructs. Parts played. Every suit of clothes a costume, right until the final madness, the panic, the irreversible gesture. Because, as he says in his acknowledgements, “this is a book largely about the theatre”. The kind of work in which Gricey acted – Twelfth Night, the Scottish play, The Duchess of Malfi, plays that long ago accreted their own myth – is always a haunting of itself, and then the haunting of a haunting.

Isn’t that what actors like Vera and Frank and Gricey do? Bring things back? They haunt old plays or theatres and encourage old plays and actors to haunt them. They draw it all out from the seamy, rotting woodwork beneath the dressing room, out from the steamy narcissisms, pretensions and ambitions of their fellow thesps. The Wardrobe Mistress isn’t just an entertaining ghost story, assembled by a master-manipulator to be full of narrative trapdoors, tantalising at one moment and agreeably grotesque the next: it’s also an exploration of the deep mythology of theatre. Gricey’s era was probably the last in which it was possible to be this sentimental – this florid – about the way acting connects us with a self-recycling past. McGrath himself seems ambivalent about the sentimentality he depicts. But there’s no political ambivalence here: by the end of the novel, the icy postwar alleys, the shattered theatres and public houses are under the malign enchantment of a quietly resurgent politics. The plentiful mirrorings, the doppelgangers and dybbuks both real and false, make that plain, and make plain that fascism is also a kind of theatre – always already a re-enactment of itself.

M John Harrison’s short story collection You Should Come With Me Now will be published by Comma in November.

The Wardrobe Mistress is published by Hutchinson. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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