Sunday, May 26, 2019

Weekend Review: The Wardrobe Mistress

The Wardrobe Mistress / Patrick McGrath
London: Windmill Books, c2017.
314 p.
The last Sunday of the month means a review of a non-instructional book -- this time a unsettling story by a master of the gothic/grotesque. Actually this book was much less grotesque than his early books, and I was most drawn to it, obviously, by the wardrobe part of it. So I was pleased to find that it had a lot more theatre, sewing, and women's lives in it than gothic gore.

Joan Grice is a wardrobe mistress at a small London theatre. It's 1947, it's the coldest winter in memory, and war rations are still making life miserable. On top of this comes the sudden death of Charlie Grice, 'Gricey', Joan's husband and a generally beloved star actor.

Joan and her troubled daughter Vera (who is married to a much older theatre producer) suffer though Gricey's funeral together, but then Joan is rather on her own in her small flat. And there she begins to discover that Gricey was not entirely what he told her he was. She feels unmoored as she begins to uncover more and more about his inexplicable, hateful hidden life.

There's also a new man stirring things up -- a younger actor who had stepped in to Gricey's role as his understudy -- and whom Joan can't seem to separate from his role. Then Vera gets cast alongside him...

Added to all this literal drama there's overtone of the supernatural, and this is where McGrath's love of the gothic shines. Joan and Vera's mental stability is challenged, their security in normal everyday life is challenged, and when it all shakes out it wasn't at all what I'd expected, culminating in a shocking conclusion. Dark, creepy, and yet fascinating, this story incorporates Joan's knowledge of sewing as she remakes some of her husband's fine clothes for the young and impecunious actor taking over Gricey's role(s) in multiple ways.
She regarded him critically, and in her mind's eye she saw him as he'd look when it fitted him properly; and, yes, for just a second she closed her eyes and Gricey was there.
Then she was all business. Out with the tailor's chalk for it was too broad in the shoulder, too deep in the chest. A pin here, a pin there, tighten up the trousers at the back, take it in a touch at the seat, and give him an inch of trouser cuff. She knew what she was doing when a man stood before her in a costume requiring alterations...
Then she was done. She left him to get dressed, and when he emerged he was a scarecrow once more. The suit lay on the bed, pinned and chalked and ready for the tailor, herself.
If you like an unsettling post-war England setting, with a dash of marital upset and dark developments, alongside political commentary that is still relevant to today's happenings, this is a book for you. It has a literary style, with a chorus commenting on the narrative; if it is confusing at first just keep going, you'll figure it out. It adds to the sense of dislocation and unreality that underpins the plot. And if you are also a sewist, well, you'll appreciate some of the details too. But don't expect sunshine and light from this one!

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