Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath

The ghosts of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Last Days in Cleaver SquareFrancis McNulty is an old man now, in 1975, but his younger self was one of the many men who had gone to aid the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, in his case as a medic. Now he is frail, although he hates the word, and showing signs of mental decline, perhaps even the beginnings of dementia. So when he starts seeing visions of General Franco at first in his garden and then later inside his house, his daughter puts it down to his mental state. Francis is convinced though that Franco, currently on his deathbed in Spain, is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind.

Told as Francis’ journal in a somewhat disjointed and rambling fashion as befits an elderly, possibly confused man, this is a wonderful picture of someone haunted by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. As part of my Spanish Civil War challenge I had just finished a biography of Franco (review to come), the last chapter of which detailed his long-drawn out and rather horrific final days as his body crumbled and haemorrhaged and his doctors refused to allow him to die. It is during those days that Francis, in his home in England, gradually reveals his experiences and finally the incident that has left him with a feeling of guilt all the years since. His hatred of Franco is visceral, his view entirely polarised by the atrocities he witnessed, although there are occasional hints that he is aware that there were atrocities on the Republican side too. We learn of Doc Roscoe, the doctor he worked alongside patching up the wounded under atrocious conditions. We hear the story of Dolores Lopez, now Francis’ middle-aged housekeeper, but back then a child caught up in the siege of Madrid. And we come to understand the haunting, literal and metaphorical, of Francis by his old nemesis, Franco.

Madrid, I murmured, the slurry way the madrileňos said it, the lispy first d and the fiercely clipped second one. I had once heard a flamenco guitar being so sweetly, so movingly played in Madrid, as bombs fell in the distant suburbs, then when the planes got closer the music abruptly ceased, and instead there was shouting. I saw a middle-aged man fall in the Gran Via and his wife sank to her knees beside him, weeping. He’d been shot dead. To see Madrid again before I died, this seemed suddenly of vital importance to me and I became elated and impatient and I didn’t properly understand why.

But this is not purely or even mostly a political novel. The story Francis reveals is a human one, of unexpected love and loyalty, of betrayal and the search for redemption and forgiveness. Did it make me cry? You betcha! But it also made me laugh, frequently, as Francis gives his often acerbic view of those around him, including his daughter and sister, both of whom he loves dearly but not uncritically. It’s also a wonderful depiction of ageing, with all the pathos of declining physical and mental faculties. There are many parallels between Franco and Francis, not least their names, of course, but their habit in their final days of finding themselves in tears. They each have only one daughter, caring for them at the end of their lives simply as fathers regardless of their past or politics. Francis’ daughter is as well portrayed as Francis himself, as she tries to deal with this difficult, contrary, opinionated man who refuses to accept his increasing limitations. She ranges through patience, worry, irritation, bossiness, and all the other emotions anyone who has cared for an elderly relative will recognise, but there is never any doubt in either the reader’s or Francis’ mind that her overriding emotion towards her father is love.

SCW LogoBook 6

It’s a short novel, but has so much in it – truly a case where every word counts. Francis, writing privately in his journal, reveals more to the reader than he ever has to those closest to him, especially of his feelings for Doc Roscoe and for other men he has known over the years. Again a beautiful depiction of closeted homosexuality – Francis has chosen the easier path at that period of outwardly leading a heterosexual life. Yet one feels his relationship with his daughter is a major compensation for his lifetime of self-denial. And he is self-aware enough to gently mock himself so that one feels his life has not been a wasteland, although it is only now, as he faces his last days and recognises that his eternal enemy Franco is facing his, that he can finally try to come to terms with his past.

Patrick McGrath
Patrick McGrath

Why have I never come across Patrick McGrath before? A serious omission which I will have to promptly put right. It’s certainly not necessary to know much about the Spanish Civil War or Franco’s dictatorship to appreciate this one, but recognising the accuracy of the depiction of Franco’s final days gave it an extra depth for me. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving, full of emotional truth – this gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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49 thoughts on “Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath

    • I blame the blogosphere for not bringing him to my attention before! 😉 His writing is wonderful – I can imagine that carries across to whatever subject he chooses. I’ll definitely be checking out his earlier books.

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  1. This sounds wonderful, I’ve added it to my reading list. It seems McGrath has created a psychologically authentic picture of aging and the recovery of memories. I’m not especially well versed about the Spanish Civil War, but this sounds like a very human story.

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    • I loved it as you can tell – beautiful writing and his characters felt absolutely true. I really don’t think any particular knowledge of the Civil War is required, but knowing from my factual reading that he’d clearly researched the subject and was giving a true picture of Franco’s last days made it feel even more authentic.

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    • It’s the Payne one which I must say I found a bit too pro-Franco overall – makes a change for the bias to run that way, but it still felt like bias. I think I’ll try to read the Preston one sometime to get the picture from the other side too!

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  2. I really like novels like that, FictionFan, where we get to see events, political movements, and so on, through the eyes of the people who live them. It’s such a human way to see history and I’m glad that happened here. And what an interesting approach, too! It sounds as though it’s evocative, too, and I don’t say that about a lot of books. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I’ll be looking forward to your review of the Franco biography.

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    • I liked that he didn’t try to do too much. Sometimes with historical fiction there can be a tendency for the author to show all their research, but he only used the relevant bits while managing to keep the reader well-enough informed. And his central character was so well drawn! Haha, I’m looking forward to the Franco review too… if only the fairies would write it for me overnight… 😉

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  3. Your appreciation for this one comes through loud and clear, FF. It sounds like an interesting read. I’ve never read any of his novels before, so thanks for introducing us!

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    • I loved this one and probably wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been for the SCW challenge, so hurrah for that! He seems to have written loads and be very popular so I don’t know why I’ve never heard of him before – I blame the blogosphere! 😉

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    • I picked it purely because of the SCW challenge – otherwise I doubt if I’d have thought of reading it. That’s why I love doing these challenges – they force me out of my comfort zone and some of my favourite reads have been the ones I’ve chosen because of them.

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  4. I like that you mix it up, when choosing books for your Spanish Civil War challenge. This one sounds like a wonderful story and I would definitely prefer it to a biography of Franco. On the other hand, your reading of the more factual / political books allow you to understand the background and setting for books like this better. I don’t have the inclination to take up a such a project, but fundamentally I like the idea very much.

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    • The biography of Franco was hard work even for me, with my odd fondness for heavyweight history books! But I do love doing this kind of mixed factual/fiction challenge – I enjoy the novels more when I understand the history, and I get through the history better if I know I have some enticing novels lined up as a reward. 😀

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    • Thank you! Yes, it’s been a roller-coaster recently – either great books or bad books and nothing much in-between. I do hope you can get this one – it really is a lovely book. 😀

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  5. Oh, this sounds wonderful! I think it’s quite difficult to write about the relationship between an aging parent and a loving but perhaps frustrated son or daughter caring for them, at least without being too saccharine or too grim, and it sounds like this treads that line quite well – to say nothing of all the interesting Spanish Civil War themes. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for this!

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    • He really does a great job with the father/daughter relationship, maybe because we see it from the father’s point of view, and although Francis is beginning to fail a little, he’s still sharp and perceptive most of the time – about himself as well as other people. I do hope you enjoy it if you get to it sometime – I suspect it’ll show up in my best of the year round-up.

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  6. I have this book! (What possessed me to think joining Net Galley was a good idea last autumn 😲 I shall be forever playing catch up.) It’s near the top of the backlog so your review is perfectly timed. Though I’ll need to steel myself. I’m already thin-skinned enough when it comes to aging parents and caring daughters. Maybe just as well that it’s short.

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    • Haha, NetGalley should be banned! It’s a danger to TBRs everywhere! However I think you’ll love this one, Sandra – the father/daughter thing is beautifully written and it doesn’t get too hard to read, mainly because Francis has such a waspish sense of humour and is still functional both physically and mentally, though beginning to decline. I find some aging parent things too hard too, especially if dementia is involved, but this one is kinda heart-warming rather than harrowing. It made me cry, but it also made me smile and laugh… 😀

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  7. Wonderful review of a book I’m sure I will also much enjoy. I was pretty sure of the rightness of Cleaver Square when you first mentioned it and I’m waiting for the library’s new copy to arrive (which I requested). I did read McGrath’s Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now a few years ago. I remember that was intense and evocative.

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    • Your library ought to thank you for requesting this one – it’s a lovely book! I’m almost certain you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. I’m still amazed that I haven’t come across McGrath before. It’s not just that I haven’t read his books, I actually have never heard of him at all. And yet he seems to be popular. The blogosphere is so geared towards women writers that I fear poor male authors get overlooked. They should start up a protest movement… 😉 I selected Asylum for my next one, but loads of his books sound appealing so I was spoiled for choice.

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  8. This one sounds quite lovely, I’m glad you’ve discovered a new gem of an author-and a contemporary one no less! You phrase ‘loving dearly but not uncritically’ is a fascinating one, it’s really got me thinking. Do I love critically? I think I do, but I wish I didn’t! I suppose we can’t help it with those closest to us…

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  9. This is a new author to me also. The Wardrobe Mistress sounds good, with a good setting. Maybe I will read that one sometime. I am feeling pretty overwhelmed by my TBR piles right now.

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    • Ha, join the club! It’s the downside of finding a new author – trying to fit his books into the already overstuffed TBR! The Wardrobe Mistress does sound good, but I think loads of them sound intriguing. I’ve opted for Asylum for my next choice, I think.

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  10. I’ve only read one McGrath book (Asylum) and seen the film Spider which was based on another of his books. Not sure why but I never felt I needed to check out his others. Thanks for your interesting review, I will give him more consideration.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You can never tell till you’ve read a few, I think – this one may simply have had themes that particularly worked for me, and I may hate everything else he’s written! But there’s only one way to find out… 😉 Asylum is the one I’ve picked to try next, so I’ll see how it goes.

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