After reading too many unfulfilling books lately I wanted to read something modern, quick & easy to read but I wanted a book that still had substance. I’ve read a few of Patrick McGrath’s books and Trauma had been on my TBR list for quite a while so…its time had come.
I like books that have a first sentence that pulls the reader in. Patrick McGrath does this really well; Paul Auster is another author that excels with these killer opening lines. Trauma opens with these lines:
My mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was seven years old, and I felt it was my fault. I felt I should have prevented it. This was about a year before my father left us.
And so, along with the title, we are left in no doubt that we are about to read a story about depression, suicide, dysfunctional families & relationships and other mental illnesses.
The novel is told from the viewpoint of Charlie Weir. From the beginning we find out about his mother who in her latter years drank and smoked heavily, was depressed and lived in squalor. His father was only a periodic presence in his childhood and his mother and father had a violent relationship. Charlie has an argumentative relationship with his older brother Walter. Both Charlie and Walter seem to thrive on their arguments and their dad would often encourage them to argue and fight when they were children.
Walt and I could get angry at each other in seconds. It alarmed others. It worried Agnes, my wife, to whom I was still married at the time, when she first saw it happen, that two otherwise civilized men could so quickly become so abusive.
At the point the book starts Charlie has been separated from his wife, Agnes, for seven years though he is still in touch with her and his daughter Cassie. Agnes is now married to Leon, a fireman, but Charlie lives alone. Oh, and Charlie is a psychiatrist who specialises in trauma, especially trauma experienced by war veterans. As the book is set in late 1970s New York there are a lot of Vietnam veterans that need help. The story dips into the past frequently and we discover that he met Agnes through her brother Danny, who was one of Charlie’s Vietnam patients. Danny rarely talked about what happened in Vietnam but it is hinted that the failure of Charlie’s and Agnes’s marriage had something to do with Danny’s treatment.
Previous McGrath books that I’ve read have had a gothic and/or horror feel to them but Trauma is told in a short, punchy style more reminiscent of an old U.S. detective story. There is also a lot of smoking, drinking and sleeping around, which all adds to the seedy feeling of the book, which is the effect that McGrath is presumably after. All the characters are in some way damaged and yet none, including Charlie, seem to be enthusiastic about getting professional help. So we view these characters at times when they’re at their lowest. McGrath handles this excellently as they could so easily become stereotypes but each character is believeable if not particularly likeable.
So, the main thrust of the story is to see whether Charlie can resolve the issues concerning Danny and his marriage breakup as well as his relationships with his mother and brother. As the book progresses there are enough revelations of everyone’s past history to keep the novel ticking over at quite a speed. In the blurb on the back, the book was regularly described as a thriller, and whilst I can see that it could be described as such, I prefer Hilary Mantel’s description of it: ‘The novel works beautifully as a sober, tightly written character study.’
When reading novels I always pick out and save quotations. Trauma had several good ‘one-liners’ but I especially liked this longer one:
I often wondered how it would be to tramp off into the mountains and keep going until I was exhausted, then simply sink into the snow and fall asleep. Then the wolves could have me.
To want to die in the forest and be eaten by wolves: another marker of incipient madness.
I couldn’t help but look at some other reviews before reading the book and was a little surprised to see many bad reviews. The criticisms were mainly that the characters were unlikeable, they drank and smoked constantly, the ending was rushed and some thought the ending was predictable. Well, I didn’t think the ending was rushed, it was just that the novel did pick up speed a little near the climax. At least it wasn’t one of those enigmatic ‘work it out for yourself’ type of endings. I thought the ending was quite ‘natural’ and believeable; McGrath wasn’t trying to concoct an ending that was overly clever just to confound those readers that pride themselves on working it out.
Now I’ll have to sort out what my next McGrath book will be.