Out of the closet, into the para­nor­mal fry­ing pan

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Pa­trick McGrath’s ninth novel is a story in which noth­ing is ever quite as it seems: char­ac­ters con­found those clos­est to them with shock­ing se­crets; su­per­nat­u­ral haunt­ings morph into real-world hor­ror; and the dead haunt the liv­ing in ways more dis­turb­ing than a ghost story.

Set in Lon­don’s the­atre­land in 1947, the wardrobe mis­tress of the ti­tle is newly wid­owed Joan Grice. Her hus­band, Char­lie – “Gricey” – had been a fa­mous ac­tor, and their psy­cho­log­i­cally frag­ile daugh­ter, Vera, is fol­low­ing in his foot­steps.

What be­gins as a novel about grief man­i­fest­ing it­self in para­nor­mal fan­tasies takes on a more sin­is­ter edge when Joan un­cov­ers Gricey’s po­lit­i­cal past, lead­ing the novel into ex­plo­rations of fas­cism, an­ti­semitism and how a frac­tured na­tion en­deav­ours to re­build it­self from the rub­ble of war.

McGrath has a rep­u­ta­tion for gothic fic­tion and there are el­e­ments of that here too, not least Joan’s ter­ri­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in­side her hus­band’s wardrobe, which, for a time, she be­lieves holds Gricey’s spirit: “She heard a dif­fer­ent noise now. The clothes on the rail were shak­ing as the hang­ers, all wooden, be­gan clank­ing against each other, and she was aware too of the rus­tle of ag­i­tated fab­ric. She turned, be­wil­dered.” Part of the skill in The Wardrobe

Mis­tress comes from the om­ni­scient nar­ra­tion in the form of a Greek cho­rus, at turns scathing and gos­sipy, con­fid­ing and judg­men­tal: “We saw her in the pub around this time. We thought we should take her out, cheer her up. There were a few of us she knew, old friends… We knew what she was think­ing about, it was Gricey, of course, who all that time had had a se­cret, and her­self prac­ti­cally the only one who didn’t know it be­cause no­body wanted to be the one to tell her. Well, why would we?” McGrath’s dex­ter­ity in main­tain­ing the au­then­tic­ity of the nar­ra­tive voice al­lows a sat­is­fy­ing and in­ti­mate im­mer­sion in the novel.

Joan is a marvel­lous cre­ation, both haughty and vul­ner­a­ble, proud and lonely. “We’ve heard Joan Grice called a beau­ti­ful woman. A strik­ing-look­ing woman, cer­tainly, and a for­mi­da­ble one. Her hair was black and with­out a thread of sil­ver. She wore it pulled back with some sever­ity from her face, the bet­ter, it was said, to come at the world like a scythe.” Joan’s grief prompts a re­liance on “Un­cle Al­co­hol”, the bot­tle she keeps stashed on top of a kitchen cup­board that grad­u­ally finds a home closer to the kitchen ta­ble in scenes that ex­ude a quiet poignancy. But it is not un­til the rev­e­la­tion of Gricey’s se­cret half­way through the novel that McGrath pulls the reader’s sym­pa­thies firmly in Joan’s di­rec­tion.

McGrath writes with stylis­tic pre­ci­sion: “They sat close to­gether gazing at the flick­er­ing coals, while about them the dim bulb crack­led in its stiff linen shade all veined in black, and hang­ing from a twisted cord, as the clock ticked.” De­scrip­tions of the­atri­cal life are beau­ti­fully evoked; scenes of po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal con­fronta­tion are vis­ceral and af­fect­ing.

The Wardrobe Mis­tress is vivid and multi-lay­ered: as a gothic story, it is re­plete with sus­pense and an un­nerv­ing sense of the macabre; as a study of the in­sid­i­ous na­ture of po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies it is chill­ing and ap­po­site; and as a story about the ef­fects of grief, it is per­cep­tive, prob­ing deeply into the hu­man psy­che to re­veal it in all its ser­pen­tine com­plex­ity.

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