Swamp thing

by Tze Ming Mok / 18 September, 2004

Patrick McGrath's father was medical superintendant of Broadmoor, England's notorious madhouse. His novel Spider was made into a David Cronenberg film, and he edited a collection called The New Gothic. These three facts speak volumes about the grim, psychological territory of his back catalogue. McGrath's latest novel Port Mungo repeats many of his favourite motifs, especially those of his much superior novel Asylum: cool clinical tones, an unbalanced artist, a prurient narrator relating a catastrophic love-affair second-hand, alcoholism, debased sexuality, suicide, the murky psychology of drowning - in other words, the usual array of basket-cases, straining with Victorian hysteria. The novel aims for the effect of a coolly placid surface that stirs oh-so-slowly, then starts churning, roils and then bursts its banks. The effect is achieved, but you may remain curiously unmoved.

The narrator, Gin, is an aristocratic old maid of letters whose one grand passion, her "genius" brother Jack, runs away from civilisation at the age of 17, with a 30-year-old woman, to become a great painter in the romantic isolation of a Honduran swamp. Jack's lover and teacher Vera is a brilliant, alcoholic painter, apparently prone to promiscuity and violence, and constantly abandoning him and their two daughters to their marooned, malarial existence. Years later, after tragedy strikes, Jack returns to Gin under an ambiguous cloud. Has he become a great painter? Who is to blame for his daughter Peg's death in the mangroves? How will Jack get to the end of his life under the watchful eye of his sister? And how will she manage to stick to his side of the story, when she already knows everything?

It is almost impossible not to distrust Gin's nervy, pompous, blinkered account from the beginning. The guileless set-up of her and Jack's landed-gentry childhood is all rampant romanticism, tramping across the moors, and "tupping the Help" (who are burdened by such Dickensian names as Miss Splendour and Mrs Croke). After Jack abandons Gin for Vera and the far reaches of a fetid, steaming mosquito coast, you can sense Gin sweating behind her prim remarks on civilisation, primal urges and her brother's sex life. Port Mungo is sodden throughout by dark undercurrents of denial.

Amid such fraught, cavernous territory it is surprising that the book can be so tiresome. This time McGrath has created characters who, despite their frequent violence and humid dysfunction, are somewhat dull as narrated. It might be that dullness and banality have an important function in the novel. Although it's high Gothic melodrama, Port Mungo is also a painstaking psychological study of a classic element of sexual abuse - the enablement of abusers by the women around them. "A lot of it in Suffolk," says Gin's other brother grimly of Jack's particular perversion, and the banal Englishness of this "primal urge" seems one of the things preventing Gin from believing the evidence accumulating before her. For he is an Artist, with all of the dubious "permission" of genius.

Bizarrely, only after the novel ends does it start working. And work it does. This is not the simplest of endorsements, but it is an endorsement: Port Mungo is one of those books that seems to exist perfectly outside the book itself. Reading Asylum, with its very similar set-up, was like a process of entrapment, culminating in the snapping down of hospital corners in its exquisite final sentences - pinning the essence of the novel down, right on top of the reader. Port Mungo, on the other hand, has escaped its cell. You wander after it down the corridor for a long time. Left with the familiar McGrath taint, a dank stain on the fingers and mind, the strongly lingering impulse is to reread it.

PORT MUNGO, by Patrick McGrath (Bloomsbury, $35).

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