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Ghost Town by Patrick McGrath

Three bites of a Big Apple brought to life through death

We start with a fine piece of Gothic set in the War of Independence. Its narrator recounts the tale as he lies dying, dissipated by drink and distraught with guilt. In his early childhood his mother is arrested for spying when he betrays her, inadvertently, to the British. She accepts her fate with contemptuous defiance. He is forced to watch when she has to strip in front of the troops and their commander, Lord Hyde, who applies imperial authority with dispassionate sadism. When finally naked, unprompted, she unfastens her hairpins to shame the onlookers.

Next McGrath examines the rise and fall of a 19th-century mercantile house and the fate of its first son and heir. Guileless and innumerate, Julius is unsuitable for the family business and falls for an unsuitable girl. When his paterfamilias evicts her from the family bosom, Julius's innocence is undermined by insanity. McGrath recreates a world of scheming scriveners, of riches amassed and of tragedies precipitated by ironclad propriety. There are elements of Dickens, James and Melville here, but these influences meld into an inimitable tale.

New York's recent history culminates on 11 September 2001. The complexity of that trauma is reflected in the sophisticated final narrative. It is mediated through an unreliable narrator and deals with the ambiguous relationships linking an analyst, her lawyer client, a prostitute and the prostitute's former lover.

Dan, the lawyer, comes to the analyst with a strange story. After the towers fell, he booked a session with the prostitute. She tells him she lost her lover in the disaster, and her revelation draws them into an relationship that is unprofessional, and passionate. Dan's story leads the analyst, in turn, into unsettling meditations on the nature of evil.

Bloomsbury commissioned this collection from McGrath for its The Writer and the City series, the rest of which is non-fiction. This prompts the question of whether cities are best described through fiction or fact. Here, the forensic sensitivity of McGrath's prose captures New York and the shadows it casts with remarkable fidelity.

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