The Wardrobe Mistress. Patrick McGrath

5 stars for this novel about 1940s London, the theatre, ambition, grief, sanity, fascism and so much more.

For a novel that shows us the bleakness of 1947 London so clearly, with its freezing winter, post-war rationing and continuing threat of fascist insurrection, The Wardrobe Mistress is surprisingly entertaining and enjoyable. The novel is narrated in theatrical style by the ladies of the Chorus, an omniscient omnipresent bunch who narrate, comment, gossip, lament and drop hints with some glee. This unusual narrative makes the novel glow with warmth and sly wit, and you never quite know where a sentence will lead, as for example when, some time after the death of actor Charles ‘Gricey’ Grice, his widow Joan and fur-coat wearing daughter Vera are embracing: ‘Vera was in her arms now, sobbing, and what a rare pleasure this was, thought Joan, to sink her face into all that thick warm fur’.

Joan is the wardrobe mistress of the title, who discovers an awful truth about her dead husband. Grief (and, as a result, gin) causes her to struggle to keep sane, even as she worries about Vera’s sanity. Vera’s focus on acting is single-minded and very well explored by the author who evidently knows the theatre intimately and writes wholly convincingly about this world. The characters including Julius, Gustl and Frank are well-drawn, as is the horror and violence of ‘inadequate Englishmen dressed up as Nazis’.

And Vera as The Duchess of Malfi is shown to be

a war hero to an audience weary of war.
When hope has gone they see in her a kind of courage the idea of which they’ve lived with since September 1939 but been unwilling to call as such, for that’s not the British way. But here, now, on a London stage, in a play written more than three hundred years earlier, by an Englishman, they see it on display, and in the inarticulate depths of their weary souls they exult. What other country in Europe has stood firm against the Nazis? What other has given not an inch, collaborated not at all, been never occupied, has fought on to the bitter end and from the ruins emerged victorious? The Duchess of Malfi is the defiant antagonist of a demented megalomaniac with absolute power over life and death. In her they see themselves.

The Wardrobe Mistress is a timely novel, filled with light and darkness. I recommend it.

I received this ebook free from NetGalley. It will be published in the UK on 7 September, by Hutchinson.

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