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Patrick McGrath
Port Mungo

By Katharine Begg

Jack Rathbone's 'malarial' paintings may materialise from the muddy swamps of Port Mungo, the Honduran river town of the title, but it is the artist's dangerous self-absorption that Patrick McGrath's sixth novel exploits for its subject matter.

'Cold, stiff, untouchable' Gin Rathbone tells the story of her brother's life, ranging from their privileged English childhood through his torrid relationship with artist Vera Savage to New York and, fatally, to the backwater of Port Mungo. Gin is far from objective, and her near-obsessive adoration for her brother filters our experience. The gothic tale – there are mentions of a 'Rathbone curse', while some characters come 'straight out of the pages of romantic mythology' – unravels into a melodrama about Jack's possibly incestuous relationship with his daughter, Peg, whose death is the mystery at the centre of the story.

Port Mungo is a town 'turned black, its surface alive with flickering insects and flashes of silver', and should be the creative centre for a novel about art, lust, incest and death. With its lone mangrove tree rising from murky dark swamps, the cover illustration amplifies this impression. But this is a novel about the destructive narcissism of the artist: as a quagmire that engulfs and destroys, Port Mungo is also an image for Jack's egotism. Likewise, Gin's clinically detached words are the shiny surfaces through which Jack is refracted; his paintings are all portraits of the artist, showing the various 'colours of his mind'; his best picture is entitled 'narcissism'. When he hungrily sucks out a thorn from Peg's dirty foot, Gin sees 'the complete breakdown of the civilised reflex'. Even incest for Jack is a form of self-love, signalled by his portrait of Anna (his younger daughter) – seen variously as a depiction of Peg, of Anna and of himself.

Jack uses the swamps of Port Mungo to disguise his own shallow waters while the Manhattan art world feeds off his 'neo-tropicalism' to lend some darkness to its white gallery walls. Gin's narrative does the same. Her obsession with her brother's life fills in for her own horribly clinical existence: her relationships are sealed-off and neatly disposed of; her sitting room is an empty space covered with the art of Jack and Vera. But this clever conceit leaves the novel feeling strangely blank. The romantic chasms of Port Mungo and Jack Rathbone cannot be exposed while we are forced to experience them through gin's careful words. The heart of darkness that McGrath reveals is icily empty.

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