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What I Think: Review of Patrick McGrath's The Grotesque

*one of my ongoing series of blog posts that looks at the books I read*

One of my absolutely favorite twentieth-century British books is Patrick McGrath's Spider, which is suspenseful, well-written and shocking. Based on my experience with this book, I decided to branch out into other McGrath novels, and I was delighted to find The Grotesque (his very first novel) in Ed's Editions (an amazing used bookstore that you MUST visit if you live in or visit Columbia, SC).

I had a new McGrath, which was good, but I'd also bought about 8 other books, which was bad because The Grotesque got shuffled to the bottom of my books pile. I put it by my bedstand, where many of my books come and go at times, but this one stayed. And stayed. And stayed. It seemed that I would read about ten pages, get distracted and put the book down for another week. Usually, I'm a voracious reader that can finish an "easy" book (a Michael Crichton, James Patterson, etc.) in a matter of hours if I put my mind to it (I read fast more out of necessity than anything else...going to English grad school kind of drills it into you). The Grotesque topped out at around 200 pages, which would normally fall into the "easy" category for me, yet it was taking weeks and weeks and weeks for me to get through it. Why?

I was originally very excited about this particular title because 1) the author and 2) the title. The grotesque--as in the literary element--is found throughout the Gothic movement, my favorite of all favorites and the topic of my masters thesis. The story line caught my eye, too: eccentric English gentleman becomes completely handicapped as a result of a terrible accident, and then ponders the mysterious disappearance (and, as we discover later, death) of his daughter's suitor. The narrator is convinced that the butler is behind all of the nefarious activities...but could it really be that the pre-accident gentleman is the true culprit?

This book is what I consider "quiet"--there aren't any major surprises or super gory scenes. If this was made into a movie, it would be moody and dramatic with enough ambiguity at the end to keep the audience guessing. Quiet books aren't always bad; in fact, some of them can be very, very good (see The Time Traveler's Wife and Atonement). This book seemed to try to hard to be clever, but, in truth, much of it had already been done. The who-dun-it aspect was never emphasized enough for me, and honestly, the narrator protested his innocence a bit much to truly make the ending ambiguous. McGrath is a skilled writer, but this novel doesn't come close to the chilling atmosphere and richly painted characters of his later works like Spider or Asylum.

If you like this, I would recommend:

  • Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor
  • Patrick McGrath, Spider
  • Patrick McGrath, Asylum
  • Iain M. Banks, The Wasp Factory