In his latest novel; ‘Constance’, Patrick McGrath employs his skill of a master story teller to give us a keen insight into torched minds of his characters. Which is to say into complexities of the human psyche.
Dark corners of human mind, those obscure spaces where our most secretive selves dwell, are McGrath’s specialty. In an interview he recently gave, McGrath talked about his childhood spent mostly on the grounds of high-security psychiatric hospital where his father was a medical superintendent. In his own words it gave him enough material for a life-time of writing. I have no doubt about it; no other contemporary writer depicts ‘crazy’ as he does.
The same is true for ‘Constance’, written from the perspective of a woman who ‘hears voices’ and therefore may, or may not be suffering from mental illness, something never explicitly stated in the book, which is just as well. It is for the reader to decide whether Constance creates her world in accordance with her believes which originate in her ‘ill’ mind, or whether her world, including her parents and sibling, caused the ‘illness’ of her mind … a dilemma familiar to many.
Constance Schuyler Klain is a young woman who works for a publishing house and lives alone in Manhattan. Her aloofness and icy beauty makes her enigmatic. At the literary party, Sidney Klein, a professor of poetry and twenty years her senior becomes intoxicated by that enigma. He peruses her tirelessly and after some initial doubts Constance agrees to marry Sidney and move to his large, book-filled apartment.
The novel’s opening lines are: ‘My name is Constance Schuyler Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said goodbye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy. I intend to become my own woman. I intend, oh, I intend everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling, querulous voice so unshakable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary. Sidney didn’t think I was unnecessary and this was a man who knew the world and could recite Shakespeare by heart.’
And so we are given a glimpse into Constance’s complex, intricate and above all troubled mind. Were the ‘voice of scorn and disapproval‘ real as coming from ‘Daddy’ or only real in Constance’s mind? Does it really matter?
The story is narrated by two voices; Constance’s and Sidney’s.
Raised in a run-down house on the Hudson River by English mother who insisted her two daughters call her by her first name; Harriet, and a father; Daddy, who struggled to keep his medical practice alive, Constance took on a maternal role to her younger sister Iris when Harriet died. She also developed an intense hatred for Daddy who she blames for all her troubles and sees as a cause for all her sufferings of which there is a great deal.
When Daddy’s declining health caused him to reveal a devastating secret, Constance is forced to revisit her and her sister’s childhood. In the same time her already shaky marriage is further troubled by the presence of her sister’s lover who plays piano in a cocktail bar.
Sidney’s only child, a son from his previous marriage, becomes Constance’s only solace as his own mother dies.
At times dark and disturbing, Constance is an unforgettable tale of devastation, as well as story of love, and resilience.
- Hand Yelling Constance by Patrick McGrath (mjroseblog.typepad.com)