Patrick McGrath's "Martha Peake" (+ DuMaurier question -- long post)

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Frank Lekens

1 okt. 2000 03:00:0001-10-2000
Patrick McGrath's "Martha Peake"

A few weeks ago I finally read Patrick McGrath's "Asylum" (had heard
much praise of it, but never got around to it before), and I liked it
enough to pick up his new novel that has just come out, "Martha Peake".

The blurb of "Martha Peake" suffers from the customary publisher's
hyperbole, to the point where it almost deterred me from buying the book
after all. "Martha Peake is a gripping, beautifully written and haunting
masterwork." If they want to go to the length of claiming that much for
a book that has only just come out, I usually tend to think: What's
wrong with this novel that they have to hide behind such overblown

And then they also virtually give away some of the novel's plot:

The distance between father and daughter is too short, their
bond too strong.When Harry [=father] commits a final unspeakable
act, Martha [=daughter] forced to seek a more distant place of
refuge and sets sail for America.

A final unspeakable act? A father and a daughter? My my, I wonder what
that could be...

But although they have thus spoiled that particular "surprise", and the
praise is exaggerated, the novel doesn't disappoint. Instead, it's a
classic good read.

I use that cliché on purpose, because the book seem to invite it. It is
a tale of the horrible hardships of a number of people during the early
days of the American revolution - told as though this were a novel by a
19th century novelist specializing in tales of the grotesque. It has a
daunting aristocratic manor set amid a foggy swamp, violence,
disfigurement and insanity, hearts torn asunder by divided loyalties,
"unspeakable acts" and many more such elements of the old-fashioned.
I often felt like I was reading an amalgam of Wuthering Heights,
Jane Eyre, Treasure Island, the Hunchback of the Notre Dame, and a bit
of Hardy thrown in. Every now and then I chuckled as I saw McGrath pull
another time-worn, suspense-enhancing trick out of his sleeve; much the
time it felt as though he was playing a game - as though he was playing
at writing a pseudo-19th century novel, and writing it only to manoeuvre
himself into a position where he could relish the moment of being able
to end a chapter like this:

And so I shuffled out of the Museum of Anatomy, and pulled the
door behind me, so all could rest in peace within. It creaked and
screamed on its ancient hinges as it scraped across the
flagstones, it resisted my force, and I paused, the better to
seize hold of the iron ring. And then, in the silence, with a
last flare in the shivering gloom, one wall sconce in the ante-
chamber gave out with a sputtering sigh - and then, a second
later, the other - and in the sudden darkness, _a hand fell on my

The "I" in question, the narrator, is something of a Lockwood - a more
insipid person than the larger-than-life characters he is telling us
about. And in true Wuthering Heights fashion, he tells the tale as it
has been told to him by someone who was peripherally involved in it.
I won't summarize the story here. (I find nothing so boring as
reviews that consist mainly out of summaries of the novel discussed.)
Suffice it to say that the tale is about an English počte maudit avant
la lettre (18th century!) and his daughter. The first half takes place
in England, the second in the America of the first days of the
(Incidentally, there was some discussion in this group a few
months ago about the historical accuracy of the scene in The Patriot
where the English burn down a church full of American civilians. A
version of this scene can be found in this novel as well.)

Apart from the actual tale itself, the *telling* of it has some interest
in this novel as well. Initially, the narrator tells us what he has been
told by the fireside, a glass of Hollands within easy reach, by his
uncle. But he doesn't always trust his uncle's account, and very soon
starts to pull the tale out of his hands and try to tell it himself.
Exactly what information he has to base his story on, remains a little
vague. It seems that what he tells us is only half fact, half
imagination - so that the novel is not only the story of Harry and
Martha Peake, but also a story about narrative lust, the way we tell
stories and the way we want to hear stories told, what we expect from
stories and what solace they can give us, how we project our own
fantasies onto them &c. This important substrand of _Martha Peake_ held
my interest even more than the story about the Peakes itself - but maybe
that's some kind of pseudo-academic perversity on my part. The story of
the Peakes is certainly told craftily enough to engage one's attention
to the very end (in a basic "wanting to know what happened next" kind of

In the end, I come away from this novel rather puzzled. The attention to
the workings of narrative that I just pointed to could reflect a
(post?)modern sensibility, but McGrath doesn't indulge in postmodern
posturing - he's not self-conscious about it. This book is nothing like
Barth's postmodern historical novels or The French Lieutenant's Woman
(I'm going by hearsay here, because I've read neither of those, but have
always understood them to be playing a game with the conventions of the
historical novel). Instead, it reads more like a perfect pastiche, a
stylistic exercise.
That makes it, as I said, a real page turner and a very good
read. But it also makes it one of the most curious books I've read in
a while, and it leaves me with the question what it is that McGrath
wants to *say* with this book. Surely he doesn't expect his
sophisticated post-postmodernist readers to take the tale of Martha
Peake *too* seriously? Yet on the other hand McGrath isn't marketed as
an author of genre fiction but as a serious literary author - and those
are usually expected to produce something a little weightier than just
"a good read".

Not that this bothers me very much, of course. I've had a fun time
reading this book, and I find McGrath an increasingly interesting author
- maybe exactly *because* I'm unsure as to what he tries to achieve.

The DuMaurier question:

When I read something, I usually start comparing it to other books that
I've read and try to find something that it resembles - the "author X is
more like author Y than like author Z" game. With McGrath, I couldn't
come up with anything - in a sense, Martha Peake is unlike anything else
I've ever read. A serious 20th century author who writes a 19th century
romance - I can't think of another.

The only author that came to mind was Daphne DuMaurier. Unfortunately, I
haven't read any of her stuff, so I can't judge and can only go by
reputation. She seemed to have a reputation for writing the kind of
books like this.

Is there anyone who has already read Martha Peake, and *has* read
DuMaurier, who can confirm or deny this? Or maybe on the basis of my
description (or other reviews) of Martha Peake?

What kind of books *did* DuMaurier write, anyway? Am I right in thinking
it's something like pulp for highbrows? Or can she lay claim to being
more than "just" an author of genre fiction?
And what should I start with if I want to try her out? I've
picked up two tattered copies of Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, as those seem
to be her most famous titles - would those be a good place to start?

Frank Lekens is where it's really @

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