Monday, June 21, 2010

M is for...

Martha Peake by Patrick McGrath (response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

When you browse the castoffs of the bargain table, you pick up many clods and a few gems. Martha Peake was one of the darlings plucked from the obscurity of the sale section.

The story follows young Ambrose as he is summoned to his uncle's estate in the English countryside, expecting inheritance. Instead, he is treated to the story the old man has kept quiet for years--the story of the woman Martha Peake and her troubled father, Harry. Harry is terribly disfigured in a fire that also kills his wife, and only Martha stays with him, even as he earns his keep by displaying his horrid disfigurement for money, which he promptly spends on drink. Eventually, "demon gin" turns Harry into a true monster, and in an act of betrayal even Martha cannot stomach, drives her away to the colonies.

McGrath is, apparently, known more for his gothic, shrouded storytelling than he is for historical fiction. I know this because I read it on Amazon, not because I am a McGrath expert. In fact, I've read other books by the author and did not particularly care for them. In Martha Peake, however, McGrath conjures a world of eighteenth-century shadows in which his characters take form and come alive. One can see Martha, with her fiery red hair and imposing figure. One feels pity for and, one can't help it, fear of her father, Harry. And the story itself becomes as much a character as the people themselves.

This intricately written book is almost as much about the creation of story and history as it is about the story itself. McGrath puts us in the room with the nephew as the uncle tells the story of Martha Peake, a device that, though some have disparaged it as an old trick or misuse of first person, is done marvelously well. The narrator is just reliable enough to follow the story, just sketchy enough to allow for flaring revelations. McGrath allows the creation of the story to take its place as a subplot, and a fascinating one at that. In the end, the story and the telling of it merge into one. The true climax of the ending is not the wrapping up of the literal plotline, but the climax of of story creation. If this sort of layering appeals to you, then this is sublime.

Certainly, for the historical fiction snob, there are gaffes. Some of the clothing is off, some of the particulars are vague (likely pointing to a lack of definite research into details). This is trivial next to the atmosphere that McGrath creates in his writing, which is transporting. Perhaps calling it "A Novel of the Revolution" is misleading--it is not even set in the colonies until the second half of the book, and even then it is a story during the war, not necessarily about the war. So be forewarned, but do not discount the book on the account of a poorly placed tag line.

And my favorite little piece of the book is the legend McGrath creates about Martha--a bit of invented folklore that mimics so well the real thing. In an act of defiant bravery, Martha is immortalized among the Patriot rebels fighting the British, and her story lives on much larger than she does. The image of printed cards with the story of Martha and her picture, tucked away in packs, was a brilliant reflection of the theme of created story and how we build our legends.


Caroline Starr Rose said...

This sounds really interesting! I'm writing the title down. Love bargain table finds.

Ax said...

Have you read Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati? Just wondered if you had what you thought. Picked it up one day in the bookstore and the characters annoyed me after fifty pages. But the rich description of eighteenth century life in the rural mountain country of colonial America was great. Might have ripped off Last of the Mohicans a touch too... unless there were a lot of half-blood Indians running around named Hawkeye, Chingoshgook, and Nathanial. :)

disgruntledwriterscircle said...

Sounds like a good read. That is my favorite historical time period (exceping the 1920s and 40s) and try and get my hands on anything I can set in it. Thanks for the good recommendation :)

Sarah said...

I've been meaning to read this book for some time, and your review convinced me to move it higher on the TBR. The structure of the novel intrigues me as much as the story does.

Marg said...

How cool to find an unexpected gem on the bargain table!

Rowenna said...

Marg and Caroline--The bargain table is the best :)

Ax--I haven't, though I've heard about that one...intrigued me for the storyline and time period, but I have to admit that the cover I saw was so apallingly wrong clothes-wise that it turned me off--so bad of me!

DWC--I also love the 30s and 40s! Between that and the eighteenth century for favorite historical time periods.

Sarah--the structure is as interesting as the story itself--maybe even more so!