Best known for such vivid and thoughtful literary thrillers as Spider (1990) and Asylum (1997), McGrath extends his range with this ambitious historical melodrama, a tale both as seductively fascinating and as ungainly as its boldly imagined antihero.
Harry Peake, a fatherless and willful Cornishman (with just a dash of Emily Brönte’s Heathcliff in his makeup), sublimates his volatile energies to become a successful fisherman and smuggler (as well as a largely self-taught “poet”)—until he impetuously causes the devastating fire in which his wife perishes, leaving Harry permanently crippled and reduced to supporting himself and his young daughter by exhibiting his deformity (as “the Cripplegate Monster”) and unlikely book-learning, in the taverns of late–18th-century London. In a series of rich Hogarthian scenes, McGrath memorably portrays the mutually dependent love between Harry and the fiercely devoted Martha, his surrender to the curse of drinking that his always plagued him, and the subsequent act of violence that destroys their closeness and separates them forever. Meanwhile, the “scientific” interest taken in Harry’s unique physical condition by wealthy anatomist Lord Drogo—which eventually occasions the telling of Harry’s story, to the young narrator Ambrose, who relays it to us, with his own embellishments—results in Martha’s emigration to safety with relatives in Massachusetts Bay Colony, on the eve of the American Revolution. A rather tortured plot twist involves her in an exchange of secrets whose upshot ironically casts her as a heroine and martyr to the Revolution, and McGrath brings it all to an even more ironic conclusion, as Ambrose discovers the full truth of Lord Drogo’s machinations and of Harry’s arduous final pilgrimage toward forgiveness and rest.
Ferociously imagined, intensely atmospheric, often powerfully compelling, but nonetheless weakened by far too many reversals, surprises, and interlocking narrative levels. Martha Peake delivers the goods, but wraps them in so much complexity and fustian that their brilliance is needlessly shrouded and muted.