The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath
Opening sentence: “The actor Charlie Grice was dead.”
Set in London in 1947, people are still adjusting to a post-war life, and Joan Grice, the wardrobe mistress of the title, is also coming to terms with suddenly losing her husband, Charlie. He was the love of her life, so she struggles and becomes convinced he is coming back to her through another actor, Frank Stone.
Due to this she develops a relationship with Stone, but when she finds a fascist pin hidden under her late-husband’s suit lapel, it makes her question everything she knew about him, especially as she is Jewish. She is no longer so keen to believe Charlie is in Frank’s body trying to communicate with her, although he does continue to haunt her thoughts.
Joan is an interesting character, no warmth as such, but we are sensitive to her grief and shock at discovering her husband was not who she thought he was. As the book progresses, she turns more frequently to ‘Uncle Alcohol’, to get through the days and becomes more insular as she starts to cope less and less with the reality of her situation.
We also get a fascinating look into the world of London theatre, Joan and Charlie’s daughter, Vera, is an actress and rehearsing for her play, The Duchess of Malfi, (which also features Frank Stone) and we are not only given a glimpse into how a theatre production comes together, but we are told a lot about the plot: it is a tragedy that sees the Duchess marry below her class when her husband dies, which incurs the wrath of her brothers and a violent and bloody outcome.
I enjoyed how The Wardrobe Mistress managed to juxtapose the ordinariness of a cold post-war London winter with the dramatic story arc of Joan, heightened by the Duchess of Malfi story unfolding on the stage alongside. This became clearer to me once I’d realised that the narration of the book was taking on the form of a Greek Chorus, looking in on the situation with a deep knowledge of everyone’s thoughts and actions. At first this was a little confusing, when an aside would randomly cut in, “Yes, a very nice symmetry, life and the drama, that’s what he saw; but we know what happens when symmetries appear, don’t we ladies?” Initially, it felt like it was a friend of the characters narrating and the asides were a little off-putting in places.
There is a sense of simmering tension throughout the novel, which wonderfully reflects the era the book is set in and you know it is building up to a narrative climax. Given the slow and steady pace throughout, the last few chapters do rapidly ramp up the action. However, I couldn’t help but feel that Joan’s character was not quite developed enough so, for me, the ending felt a little out of the blue.
Overall though, this was an enjoyable book, McGrath has a very eloquent writing style that is a pleasure to read.
Thank you to NetGalley for the eARC. Published 7th September 2017.