Spider – Patrick McGrath

Last week, I gave myself the very enjoyable task of re-reading the books on my Ten Favourite Books list and reviewing them on the Multiverse. The first on the list was Spider by Patrick McGrath, first published in 1990 and first read by me in 1998. It’s a bit of a difficult one to review without giving the plot away but here goes…

Spider is set in London in the late 1950s and its narrator is Dennis Cleg, otherwise known as Spider due to his tall gangly frame. It is apparent from the opening pages that Dennis is not quite right, off somehow: ‘Nothing is automatic with me anymore…The simplest actions – eating, dressing, going to the lavatory – can sometimes pose insurmountable problems…the linkage of brain and limb is a delicate mechanism and often, now, for me, it becomes uncoupled.’

Dennis lives in a boarding-house in East London near where he grew up, having returned from a long period away. Being in such close proximity to his childhood home is arousing memories, dark hints of trauma and tragedy, and so he has decided to keep a diary to make sense of his thoughts. However Dennis’s mind is obsessive, chaotic and constantly anxious; he loathes his landlady and refers to the other lodgers as ‘dead souls’, he hears voices in the attic at night, and he is plagued by illness, feeling that his intestines are twisting around his spine. There is a gathering sense of foreboding as the book progresses and Dennis comes apart as he confronts the horrors of his childhood.

Spider is an atmospheric and beautifully written book. McGrath describes the pea-souper fogs rolling in over the Thames, the narrow dark alleyways of the East End, the unending rain and grey gloom, in vivid intricate detail. In fact his writing – the way in which he constructs sentences, his use of language, the way in which he simultaneously hints and conceals –  is what made this one of my favourite books. Even re-reading it, I went over certain paragraphs or phrases a number of times, lost in admiration of his talent.

Early on in his career, McGrath was labelled a “gothic” writer and certainly Spider has gothic overtones, but it’s also a brilliant study of a man’s mind unravelling. McGrath’s father was the Medical Superintendent of Broadmoor Hospital and the family lived on the grounds. This odd childhood obviously affected McGrath as many of his books deal with mental illness, deformity (whether mental or physical), and isolation. Or as he puts it, ‘what I like to do is to observe the breakdown of people whose emotions cannot be assimilated into the realities they occupy.’ 

This was my first introduction to Patrick McGrath’s work and on scanning my bookshelves I see I now have nine of his books. Start with Spider and if you like it, I’d also recommend Martha Peake and Asylum.


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