This is a prime example of modern Gothic -- a novel strongly reminiscent of Dickens (dank misty marshland, crumbling mansion with terrible secrets in the cellar, withered retainers, noble heroines etc) in both content and style, yet with a pomo twist of untrustworthy narrative and layered text. Without the latter, I'd have been wondering what the point was, for the Gothic novel's heyday has been and gone and I'm not sure that a Gothic novel set in The Past is likely to bring anything new, in terms of content and effect, to the genre.
Ambrose Tree, fancying himself the heir to Drogo Hall (inherited by his aged uncle from the great surgeon Lord Drogo) sits by the fire night after night, hearing his uncle William's version of the story of Harry and Martha Peake. Harry Peake was a smuggler in mid-18th century Cornwall, son of a whore and a fisherman; he caused his wife's death, and broke both his family and his spine, in a drunken lapse of sense. Setting out for London, accompanied only by his daughter Martha, Harry forged a sober new life amid the radicals and free thinkers. But drink would be the undoing of him again -- and of Martha, who fled to New England alone.
There the tale divides, and Ambrose becomes more the creator than the narrator, piecing together Martha's story from her letters and his own fervid imaginings. Meanwhile, his uncle continues the tale of Harry Peake -- but the tale Ambrose believes he's hearing is very different to the one that the elderly William is trying to tell him. Martha becomes a heroine of the Revolution; but what becomes of Harry, with his deformity and his craving for gin? Ambrose fears he knows: but one night in the cellar, a hand falls on his shoulder ...
Martha Peake is a tale of deception and self-deception. Martha weaves a new identity for her father, unwilling to confront his decline; Ambrose finds himself driven to write the tale of Martha's life in America; William, and his manservant Percy, have another tale to tell, and an oblique approach to it. And there's an ancient poet who wants his story told true at last.
McGrath evokes 18th-century London vividly, as well as the seven-week passage to America and the quiet, close life of an isolated fishing-port on the New England coast. And he evokes revolutionary fervour and human frailty, cleverly shaded but not obscured by Ambrose's prejudices.
Ambrose is a little too much the cipher -- hints at 'worshipping in a different church', an agenda that's never clarified, and an epilogue that raises more questions than it answers -- but he's a fascinating lens through which we view the Gothic melodrama of Harry and Martha Peake's lives.