Last Days in Cleaver Square

Written by Patrick McGrath
Review by Douglas Kemp

This is a novel of the Spanish Civil War, or more accurately, the memories of the traumatic times that Francis McNulty ponders on. In 1975, he is an elderly man living in an old house in south London with his daughter Gilly and a housekeeper, Dolores López, whom he rescued from the Spanish fascists in 1936. Francis finds the past catching up with him—he was an ambulance driver in Spain and witnessed atrocities which have haunted him since, coming close to execution in a mix-up that has preyed upon his conscience and crippled him with guilt.

McNulty is a published poet, though his inspiration seems to have departed, and in its place has come a series of unnerving visitations from a decomposing and foul ghoul in the shape of Generalissimo Franco, who at the time was dying in Spain. Gilly, who is engaged to be married to a senior Conservative politician, is worried about her father, and wants him to sell the dilapidated house and move in with her and her new husband. Francis wants nothing to do with this.

He is the quintessential unreliable first-person narrator: the reader experiences Francis’s descent into a traumatized senility and sees the disturbing world though his own undependable vision. The memories and recreations of the deeply stressful and life-altering events in Spain in the 1930s are described with a visceral reality which combines well with his own confused decline into the end of old age.