Ghost Town by Patrick McGrath

9 April, 2013

Ghost Town

Rinder himself came of immigrant stock. He had clawed his way into society, had become a partner in the House of van Horn, had married into the family – all good reasons why others must be prevented from doing the same.

I get all excited about finding books to read whenever I plan a holiday just so’s I can immerse myself in the culture and history of the place I’m visiting . But my trip to New York was way too short and I only managed to read 1.5 books. Patrick McGrath’s Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now was a recommendation on Kim’s blog and was appropriate as I spent 4 days in Manhattan with no time to explore the other boroughs of NYC.

Ghost Town is a collection of three stories stretching from the American War of Independence to New York’s rising economic boom in the 19th century to the aftermath of 9/11.

The Year of the Gibbet
is a son’s lament on the downfall of his mother’s revolutionary activities in which he tries to expunge his guilt 50 years later. There is an immediacy to McGrath’s tale, as the British army advances on Manhattan, burning everything in sight, the locals struggling to cope with death and overcrowding, helping each other and covertly assisting General Washington’s troops. Edmund’s mother is a strong, patriotic woman intent on keeping her family together and fighting the British. Set at a turning point in New York’s history, McGrath manages to keep this story visual and lyrical.

In Julius we encounter Noah van Horn as he facilitates his social mobility by building a house on prime Manhattan property. The much longed-for birth of his son Julius is tempered by the tragic death of his wife and the little boy is brought up severely by his father only cushioned occasionally by his three older sisters. This reminded me most of Edith Wharton’s New York. The middle class riding the crest of the industrialist wave, the establishment of founding families in one generation, New York was the the place to be if you wanted to marry up and become grand. Julius is the naïve rich boy living in a bubble when he falls inappropriately in love with Annie Kelly, an artist’s model. When his brother-in-law Max Rinder offers to help Noah, Julius’ mind cracks and he spends the next 20 years in a mental institution. It’s a bittersweet and haunting tale, the presence of prejudice and social ambition just lurking under the surface. This is probably my favourite of the three stories.

In Ground Zero, a psychiatrist treats a patient who is having trouble connecting with the opposite sex and falls for an escort. 9/11 looms large in the background as the characters try to move on with their lives, all the while trying to come to terms with what happened that day in their city and shattered so many lives. This was more Sex and the City albeit with some deeper themes, especially the notion of forgiveness, the capacity to hurt one another and the unreliability of people’s narratives.

I was expecting McGrath’s writing to be gritty (for no reason except that somehow I associate Manhattan with grittiness) and was surprised by the gentleness of his prose as I was by the physical ease and convenience of Manhattan itself when I visited. The stories aren’t too heavy even though some of the thematic strands are dark. What remains after finishing Ghost Town is a sense of nostalgia regarding Manhattan’s history and the love of the place felt by its inhabitants.

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3 Responses to “Ghost Town by Patrick McGrath”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    I ve not read him but this book seems the perfect choice for a few days in NYC and love the way the stories span time in the same place ,all the best stu


  2. Patrick McGrath’s ASYLUM is one of my favorites, and I always intended to pick up more of his work. Will have to check this one out.


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