The sight of the American book cover was enough to start me salivating in anticipation. And like a hungry child impatient for dinner, I had to snack. Fortunately snacking on McGrath’s Ghost Town – Tales of Manhattan Then and Now didn’t spoil my appetite for the main course, McGrath’s Trauma. In fact I devoured that in one two-and-a-half hour sitting. More of which later.

First the snack or, to serve it better justice, for it is an altogether classier dish, the hors d’oeuvre. Ghost Town – Tales of Manhattan Then and Now is a collection of 3 stories all set in New York City although in  different eras and entirely different situations. The Tale of the Gibbet is a death-bed confession of a man still attempting to come to terms with the guilt he feels over his mother’s death during the American War of Independence. Julius tells of the fallout when a young man is separated from his low-class lady-love through the intervention of his disapproving wealthy family. The final story Ground Zero is McGrath’s “obligatory”  take on 9/11,

a watershed in all our lives, a line of demarcation, or a point in time rather, before which the world seemed to glow with a patina of innocence and clarity and health.  And after which everything seemed dark and tortured and incomprehensible, bearing nothing but portents of a greater darkness to come.

The narrator is a psychiatrist whose patient begins a love affair with a woman mourning the loss of her lover in the twin towers. The patient already has problems sustaining intimate relationships with the opposite sex and his new lover is far too complicated a woman for him.  The signs aren’t good and even the psychiatrist becomes anxious …..

McGrath’s prose is clear, direct, very readable and infused with multiple psychological layers. The third story was for me the superior, although that’s not to detract from the quality of the first two. I read McGrath for the psychological content, the tortured minds, and they are more complex and intriguing in Ground Zero.  Perhaps it’s the contemporary setting making the issues more immediate but this is the tale I’ll remember of the three. 1/2

In many ways Trauma  is the natural successor of Ghost Town, sharing the contemporary setting, various themes and the anxious psychiatrist.  His universe contains a neurotic lover, a troubled mother, a manipulative brother and an absent waistrel father.  But at what point does trouble become traumatic?  You’d think that the psychiatrist would be capable of recognising and averting.  However, doctors are the worst patients and so

It is truly demoralizing to feel yourself powerless to prevent the repetition of a pattern of behavior that you recognize as productive only of suffering.  I had helped many distressed men and women … eventually disrupt such patterns of compulsive behavior; but apparently I couldn’t do the same for myself.

Other fascinating psychiatric facts emerge also.

It is the mothers who propel most of us into psychiatry, usually because we have failed them.

(Typical – as usual the mother is to blame!)

Trauma  is like watching a  train crash in slow motion.   Full-on plot driven action interspersed with a gradual peeling back of the human psyche – twisted in cases, merely damaged in others.   Utterly impossible to put down. Brilliant!

Other references:
Interview with Patrick McGrath at The Asylum