This novel is all about the psychological. Set in New York in the sixties, it tells the story of Constance, who at the age of twenty-one marries Sidney, an author and literacy expert in his late forties. Sidney, who had been married twice before became fascinated by Constance and begged her to marry him. He considered her a ‘catch’. I’m not sure what Constance considered Sidney to be, other than rich and able to afford her a very comfortable lifestyle. Constance came across from the outset as being a morbid, forlorn character who was full of emotional angst towards the world – particularly her father whom she fervently hated. In fact, the whole book surrounds her father and their relationship, which she blamed for every mistake she ever made, every inadequacy she ever possessed and for the deep unhappiness in her life that blighted her childhood. She even blamed her father for her mother’s death from cancer when she was twelve and for him favouring her younger sister, Iris, who enjoyed a closer relationship with him. In fact, she was very jealous of Iris and this too became a fixation that eventually led to drastic consequences. But once the story reveals the ‘secret’ that existed between Constance and her father (and no, it’s not sexual abuse) it becomes easier to understand her viewpoint. However, it does not fully explain her obsessiveness towards retribution – although in the final months of her father’s life she does show him a little tenderness. Alongside all of this, the story outlines the impact that Constance’s behaviour and leanings towards revenge has on her relationship with Sidney, who must be commended for his patience. But he loved her and that explains much of why he tolerated her behaviour and mood swings. The book really is a tour-de-force of emotions which shows the reader the levels of unhappiness that occur when they not articulated in a rational manner. It also shows the destructiveness that lies and secrets have on relationships and the price people pay for their deceitfulness. It also shows a degree of karma containing the well known mantra of ’what goes around, comes around’.
Patrick McGrath (pictured inset) is a British novelist who was born in 1950 and now lives in New York. This was the first time I had read one of his books, although I had read about him. McGrath had an unconventional childhood. He grew up close to Broadmoor Secure Mental Health Hospital where his father was its medical superintendent. I know he has been critical of psychiatrists in the past because I once read he had said that psychiatrists are only drawn to the profession because of their own level of dysfunction. According to his Wikipedia page his fiction ‘is principally characterised by the first person unreliable narrator’. In addition to writing about mental health and emotional complexities, he also leans towards plots about repressed homosexuality and adulterous relationships. Indeed, with the exception of any homosexuality, the remainder of this criterion can be found in Constance. It’s an incredibly well written novel and is actually highly enjoyable to read, despite its dark nature. However, if I’m picky I must say there were a few occasions when I thought McGrath used words that were incorrect – for example, he described Constance as being promiscuous. Given that she was a virgin when she married Sidney and had only cheated with one other man (Iris’s ex-boyfriend) I think the most appropriate word to use he should have used was ‘unfaithful’. Other than that it’s a great literary creation that has an air of panache about it from beginning to end.
© Declan Henry