The life of a painter haunted by the death of his daughter, as related by his admiring sister: McGrath’s latest is more contemplative than such turbulent tales as Asylum (1997).
Gin Rathbone has always been in thrall to her younger brother Jack. Does this make her an unreliable narrator? Let’s say partially reliable, at best. In 1957, dynamic Jack and quiet Gin are art students in London when 17-year-old Jack meets Vera Savage, at 30 an established artist. There’s a whirlwind romance, Jack detaches Vera from her terrible husband, and they leave for New York, two madly impulsive bohemians. But young Jack is a stronger character than the slutty, alcoholic, self-destructive Vera. Gin is miserable at Jack’s departure, seeing Vera as her rival—her own suitors never measure up to Jack, whom she loves for his narcissism (the Narcissus myth figures in Jack’s work). The story moves back and forth through five decades, and, in time, Gin, inheriting the family fortune, will make New York her home. But Jack and Vera have moved on, first to Havana and then to Port Mungo, a seedy coastal town on the Gulf of Honduras, where Jack will settle for some 20 years, at work on paintings he calls “tropicalist,” though they’re all about him and his anger. Meanwhile, Vera drinks, takes lovers, and periodically disappears. By chance, Vera will bear Jack a daughter (Peg) and much later another (Anna). She’s not maternal, Jack is negligent, and Peg fends for herself. At 16—it stands at the heart of the novel—the girl is found dead in the mangrove swamps. Jack’s account incriminates a drunken Vera, while a different version points to incest and suicide, prompting an older brother to come from England to rescue little Anna. Years later, Anna will show up in New York to root out the truth, though the outcome will be another death, equally mysterious.
Dark brooding over dusty secrets in what’s far from McGrath’s best.