The wardrobe mistress

by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath’s ninth novel is a story in which nothing is ever quite as it seems: characters confound those closest to them with shocking secrets; supernatural hauntings morph into real-world horror; and the dead haunt the living in ways more disturbing than a ghost story.

Set in London’s theatreland in 1947, the wardrobe mistress of the title is newly widowed Joan Grice. Her husband, Charlie – “Gricey” – had been a famous actor, and their psychologically fragile daughter, Vera, is following in his footsteps.

What begins as a novel about grief manifesting itself in paranormal fantasies takes on a more sinister edge when Joan uncovers Gricey’s political past, leading the novel into explorations of fascism, antisemitism and how a fractured nation endeavours to rebuild itself from the rubble of war.

McGrath has a reputation for gothic fiction and there are elements of that here too, not least Joan’s terrifying experiences inside her husband’s wardrobe, which, for a time, she believes holds Gricey’s spirit.

Part of the skill in The Wardrobe Mistress comes from the omniscient narration in the form of a Greek chorus, at turns scathing and gossipy, confiding and judgmental. McGrath’s dexterity in maintaining the authenticity of the narrative voice allows a satisfying and intimate immersion in the novel.

The Wardrobe Mistress is vivid and multi-layered: as a gothic story, it is replete with suspense and an unnerving sense of the macabre; as a study of the insidious nature of political ideologies it is chilling and apposite; and as a story about the effects of grief, it is perceptive, probing deeply into the human psyche to reveal it in all its serpentine complexity.

Review in the Guardian

Kindle version and Amazon review

Spoken word version not available