Book review: Constance

By Paula Green

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Patrick McGrath unsettles and moves with his newest novel. Photo / Aaron Smale
Patrick McGrath unsettles and moves with his newest novel. Photo / Aaron Smale

Based in New York, British writer Patrick McGrath has published seven novels and two short-story collections. His last novel, Trauma, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. The blurb on the back tells us his fans include Hilary Mantel and Peter Carey.

Constance is an intense, gripping read that has the power to unsettle and move. I entered the strange and marvellous head of Constance and the story took over, whether I was gardening, cooking, walking on the beach or reading the next page. Not many novels do that.

Constance has married Sydney, a New York professor of poetry who has had two previous marriages and has a pale, reserved son named Howard. Constance mourns her dead mother, loathes her aged father, has a roller-coaster relationship with her seemingly flamboyant sister Iris and is increasingly fond of Howard.

Such relations are a predictable recipe for disaster, but this novel is anything but predictable. I certainly don't want to spoil that by giving you a plot summary.

Sydney is 20 years older than Constance. Yes, there is a strong thread of fathers at work in the novel (is Sydney a substitute for the father she dislikes?), but Constance claims she married Sydney so she could become a proper person. I would suggest a person of substance and strength rather than shadow and weakness. Perhaps her watery self is due to her absent mother and the icy glacier between father and daughter.

McGrath does not just serve us Constance's point of view. The shift between Sydney and Constance strengthens the novel immeasurably. What I love about McGrath's technique is the way some versions are near-identical. Yet there is always that crucial point of difference that makes the unfolding story both unbearable and fascinating.

At its heart are two characters who persist in looking and experiencing each other through milky glass. There is an acute inability to recognise each other and to be recognised. Perhaps that milky glass is also an obstacle between father and daughter (and vice versa) and sister and sister.

This inability to communicate and comprehend provoked deep sadness in me, along with the sourness of most of the relations. There is love but there is also the fear of what may happen, the terrible secrets that get revealed, the insecurities, self-doubt and various levels of loathing. There is also the whole lack of trust that filters through to the reader.

Which version do I trust? Which character do I put my faith in?

On one level, this is a portrait of our unreliability as narrators and the way history cuts deep into us, but the novel presents such a complicated and sticky portrait of a woman it is mesmerising.

McGrath knows how to write. The sentences are measured and elegant. His descriptive detail puts flesh on people and place, a welcome antidote to the psychological suspense.

I felt compelled to keep reading and pay attention to every word, and I now feel compelled to go in search of his other novels.

Constance by Patrick McGrath(Bloomsbury Circus $36.99).

- NZ Herald

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