Few writers establish a sense of dread and uncertainty as smoothly as Patrick McGrath. “Hard now to forget the first time I found him in the house. In the house!” opens our narrator, Spanish civil war veteran Francis McNulty. When we meet him he’s an aged poet living in the eponymous unkempt south London square. And the intruder? General Franco in full uniform, medals rusting and the braid coming unstitched from his cuffs, exuding a stench of death or manure or maybe of Spanish jasmine.
But this is Kennington in the summer of 1975; the real general is dying in a palace full of Goyas in Madrid. The women around McNulty gather, like something out of Lorca: daughter Gilly, who works in the foreign office; housekeeper Dolores López, rescued from the civil war by Francis when she was just eight; elder sister Finty, an artist who makes her way down from the Isle of Mull. “Pretty far gone, is it?”, she baldly asks her distressed brother.
Like so many of McGrath’s protagonists, McNulty speaks directly to the reader, telling us what’s going on, sometimes reminding us of things we might have missed. We don’t quite believe him, but McGrath’s technique is less about unreliable narrators than the near-impossibility of being reliable. The Franco apparition seems to merge with McNulty’s drunken cardiologist father, while “mildew on the asters” evidences blight in his beloved garden. Anxieties large and, maybe more unsettlingly, small – a missing cat, some lost poems – begin to mount. A journalist with the flimsiest outline of an assignment arrives and gets Francis to open up about what really happened during the war, acting as part shrink, part confessor.
McGrath expertly deploys some of his trademark elements, as with the double-edged naming of Cleaver Square – he has had characters called Cleave in the past – and is unfailingly deft in his handling of trauma and deceit. Tiny elements fleetingly present in the story return later on like a whole arsenal of Chekhov’s guns to be duly discharged, or occasionally decommissioned. By its conclusion Last Days in Cleaver Square manages to pull off the impressive trick of being narratively coherent and satisfying, yet still true to the messy businesses of memory, ageing, guilt and how to tell the story of a life.
• Last Days in Cleaver Square is published by Hutchinson (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.