British writer Patrick McGrath pens gothic stories featuring mental illness and unreliable narrators. (His novels Spider and Asylum were both made into films.) His seventh novel contains his usual themes and narrative techniques, but its setting is slightly more realistic.
The Story: Doctors generally aren’t supposed to treat themselves, and psychiatrists are no exception. Yet when one searches out the source of other people’s pain for a living, it’s difficult not to turn the clinical gaze on oneself. The life of Manhattan psychiatrist Charlie Weir embodies this problem more than the lives of most other therapists. Weir, who grew up in a dysfunctional family, specializes in treating the psychological wounds of war. Yet he has had his own failures: his wife left him after her brother, a Vietnam veteran and one of Weir’s patients, shot himself. As we learn more about Weir, it becomes clear that he may be just as disturbed as those he hopes to treat—but he may have buried his secrets even more stealthily.
Knopf. 224 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 140004166X
"That hypnotic, reasonable and wistful voice of Dr. Charles Weir, psychiatrist, had me utterly in thrall. … Trauma is, in short, a terrific literary entertainment, one that will keep you on edge, worried and guessing for 200 pages." Michael Dirda
Los Angeles Times
"Page by page, it’s clear that McGrath is building up to something—some explosive revelation, some cataclysmic event—that will pull everything together. But here and there the book drifts too far from its focus, and the conclusion doesn’t have the dramatic impact it should." Stephanie Zacharek
New York Times
"In his predictable if ambitious new novel, Trauma, Mr. McGrath abandons the Gothic backdrops he has favored for New York City in the 1970s and traded the subliminal Freudianism of horror for something more subtle and direct. … The result is a novel that feels like a transitional work: a bridge, perhaps, from Mr. McGrath’s distinctive but increasingly repetitive horror stories to something less metaphoric but equally Freudian, less overtly bizarre but just as revealing about the peculiarities of the human psyche." Michiko Kakutani
St. Petersburg Times
"Although Trauma is billed as a psychological thriller about a man plummeting into madness, Patrick McGrath’s first-person narrator is much too chilly to do his job. … Instead of immersing us in Charlie’s problems, dragging us relentlessly to his ultimate discovery, McGrath writes so flatly that it’s hard to care." Kit Reed
According to reviewers, Trauma hits all the right emotional buttons for a psychological thriller, growing more mysterious and tense with every page. The question that divided critics is whether McGrath resolved that tension to satisfaction. Most felt that he did not, either because the plot did not move along briskly enough or because they never felt enough of a connection with the narrator to reach catharsis when the book reaches its moment of crisis. Yet at least one major critic loved the book. Readers interested in Trauma might try flipping through the first chapter in a bookstore. Judging from reviewers’ reactions, readers should be able to quickly diagnose themselves as either depressed by the novel—or obsessed by it.