This review originally appeared The Third Alternative #26:-
McGrath’s latest novel is a historical romance of sorts, though written in the way only McGrath can. Young Ambrose Tree is summoned to Drogo Hall by his uncle to hear the story of Harry Peake and his daughter Martha. An 18th century Cornish smuggler, in a moment of drunken folly Harry caused the fire that killed his wife and brought a roof beam down on his own back. Horribly disfigured, Harry goes to London with Martha and for a number of years earns his keep as a barroom poet, and by displaying his back to the idly curious. But when he falls off the wagon Harry becomes a brute. Martha seeks help from Tree’s uncle, assistant to Lord Drogo, an anatomist with a professional interest in Peake’s deformity. Passage is secured for her on a ship bound for America where she has family, and a bright future beckons despite the War of Independence looming on the horizon. But her past dogs Martha, and in a final act of desperation she changes the course of history.
This book can be enjoyed simply as a historical novel, one that takes in the squalor of the London slums and the libertarian fervour of a brash, young country. As such it’s a compelling story, solidly put together and well told, but McGrath is also interested in examining the gap between reality and history, between what we think we know and the actuality of the thing itself. Harry, adjudged monstrous for his appearance, acts out the role others expect of him, while Martha’s pointless death is turned into an act of heroic sacrifice for the sake of political expediency. And yet, good as it is, this is a slightly flawed novel. Ambrose, the unreliable narrator, and perhaps representative of the book’s subtext in the way he’s continually jumping to wrong conclusions about people and their motives, at times intrudes an unwelcome element of farce. More significantly I didn’t feel as sympathetic to Harry Peake as the author obviously wanted me to. The man’s acts when drunk go beyond the pale and while excuses can be made for his behaviour the aura of latter-day saintliness the other characters invest him with is questionable.