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March 24, 2008 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Asylum – Patrick McGrath

Obsessive love affairs, taboos, psychiatry, art and madness are synonymous with the work of novelist Patrick McGrath.

The Brit essentially provides the literary equivalent of wringing a dishcloth – every drop of passion, emotion, and the essence of existence is wrung out. In fact, it’s been said that a McGrath novel will force the reader to neglect their children and housework until they’ve read the last sentence. Such a statement underlines the calibre of the writer who appeared at the Readers and Writers Week as part of The New Zealand International Arts Festival.

The imposing Embassy Theatre provided the perfect venue as McGrath discussed his work, namely his 1996 novel Asylum and his latest publication Trauma. Single word titles such as these have a knack of demanding immediate attention and so too did McGrath’s distinctly British baritone voice, as all present became transfixed. He began by reading the first two pages of Trauma, where we were introduced to narrator and psychiatrist Charlie Weir. Prominent notions of mental instability, loneliness, and sibling tension started to emerge in this two-page teaser – the brilliance of his writing was clearly evident and for this reason it was hardly surprising that the venue erupted in applause as soon as he reached the end of page two.

McGrath’s slant on gothic fiction is impressive and he made a point of talking about gothic elements such as murder and the grotesque. He explained that whilst such acts have severe repercussions in our actual lives, they can be manipulated inventively in a fictional sense. As a testament to how well he’s managed to do this, Asylum was made into a film in 2005. McGrath says of the motion picture interpretation of his novel, “The characters exist in your head and then to see them on the screen they appear ‘wrong’.” Although he did go on to say that a writer can also get great pleasure out of seeing their work come to life on the big screen. And how fitting it was to hear him say this in a movie theatre!

McGrath was signing his books in the foyer after the show as a line of excited enthusiasts formed. The congested scene served as a reminder of the quality of his work and for once not being able to move from one place to another seemed appropriate.


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