Out of the closet, into the paranormal frying pan
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.