Cover Image: Last Days in Cleaver Square

Last Days in Cleaver Square

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It is 1975.  Francis McNulty is a wily old curmudgeon, settled in his tatty London house with his cat and his books, the pub across the square and his housekeeper, Delores Lopez living in the basement.  He is a published poet but struggles to produce poetry now and indeed, his most recent pieces have gone astray.  His daughter, Gilly, returned to live with him when her former relationship crumbled.  His elder sister, Finty, arrives unannounced for a visit.  Francis is very fond of Gilly and of Finty.   He realises they have been colluding.  Gilly is soon to marry Sir Percy Gauss and Francis has been seeing apparitions.  What is to be done with him?

There is much more to this novel.  The timing is significant.  General Franco is dying.  It is Franco’s ghost which is haunting Francis.  Francis journeyed to the Spanish Civil War and worked alongside Doc Roscoe, an American doctor.  Francis barely survived.  The doc did not.

But again, there is more to this novel.  Patrick McGrath has created in Francis McNulty an unreliable narrator at once entertaining, real and intensely likeable.  He has created in this novel a story which appears to be slight but is multi-layered and multi-themed.  The prose is high calibre.  Its simplicity belies the humour and the pathos.  I loved it.  Highly recommended.
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Francis McNulty is the best kind of unreliable narrator - caustic, witty, cantankerous and aware of his failing mind. Over the course of this entertaining and original novel Francis's troubled past and haunted present collide with a spirited gesture of atonement and defiance that had me laughing aloud.  I can highly recommend this novel and would be keen to try earlier books by Patrick McGrath.
Many thanks to  the publishers and Netgalley for an ARC in exchange for a honest review.
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An intriguing story, one that kept me thinking. Strong sense of place and convincing characters, thanks for sending me this book.
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I was looking forward to this novel of an author unknown to me, but sadly I have been disappointed. Spanish Civil War, Cleaver Sq, Old Writer... the three elements really pulled me towards Last Days but the narrator, the old poet who experienced the Spanish civil war first hand and is now visited by a ghoul (the very Francisco Franco who is eternally dying in 1975 Madrid) did nothing to carry me into his descent into the darkness of old age, lived and living regrets, the possible reality of particular otherness...  There are annoying errors in some of the Spanish used, the reality of Cleaver Square is not well conjured (I am a regular visitor), and the secondary characters are not properly dealt with, I feel. Most maddening of them all is Dolores López... if Francis McNulty really rescued her at 8 and brought her to England, the fact that she is now just his housekeeper really makes you ponder... But (of course!) this is a novel about unreliability, past trauma, the loosing of one's mental faculties etc etc, yet for this reader, this particular literary narrative did not work. Indeed you could say that the meanderings, the ambiguities, the darkness of the whole text actually mimic the situation of the narrator... no doubt it does, but it was a peripeteia that ultimately did not interest, nor satisfied me, even if, thankfully, there was some humour that I appreciated.

Many thanks to Hutchinson via NetGalley for an opportunity to read and review independently this curious novel.
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Patrick McGrath is an author whose career I have followed since I first read Asylum back in the late 90s. His writing often tackles the psychological impact of emotional trauma, sometimes by hinting at supernatural elements like spectres and shadowy figures from the past, often using unreliable narrators. In The Wardrobe Mistress McGrath tells the story of Joan Grice and her discovery that the man she had been living with for many years, recently deceased, had once been a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Last Days in Cleaver Square, his latest novel, also deals with fascism, only this time it’s from the viewpoint of Francis McNulty, a poet living in London in 1975, seeing out the last few months of his life. Written in the first person, we get hints that McNulty’s mind may be drifting away, through his contradictions and admissions, so when he reveals that he is sometimes visited by the ghost of Francisco Franco, the Spanish fascist dictator, it is easy to dismiss this as another element of the elderly man’s fracturing mind.

We learn that McNulty did live in Spain during the Civil War, like other writers such as Orwell, Hemingway and Lee, and that due to a tragic case of mistaken identity he has been carrying a burden of guilt for decades. McNulty’s scrambled recollections blend the past and present together, creating a dreamlike quality to his narration. McGrath, as ever, does a fine job of describing the historical elements, some of which are clearly defined; others – like the aspect of repressed homosexuality – are merely hinted at. After McNulty journeys to Madrid with his daughter and son-in-law, for one last visit to the city in which he spent so much time as a younger man, he manages to commit an act of atonement which lands him in trouble with the authorities, but goes some way towards counterbalancing his feelings of hatred towards Franco.

Last Days in Cleaver Square is a short novel, well-paced and nicely written, but one that delivers quite a punch and is a worthy of your time. Recommended.
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Such an unusual book in a way, but full of warmth and animation. I felt like I knew the characters personally and was sorry to leave them.
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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 in 1975 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 several 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 rather 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.
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A real gem of a novel, wonderful. Brilliantly written, intelligent, insightful, original and a joy to read. It’s the tragic story of poet and Spanish Civil War veteran Francis McNulty, who is approaching the end of his life but increasingly haunted by his memories of that dreadful conflict. In Spain General Franco is also nearing the end of his life, but suddenly starts to appear to McNulty, in the street, sitting on the end of his bed even. A very real apparition. Simply an hallucination? Memory playing tricks? Dementia? Or a sign that perhaps it is now time for our tortured narrator to confront at last those demons that he cannot escape. Moving and yet often funny, expertly plotted and paced, with a unique narrator, I read the book almost at one sitting, so compelled was I to find out what happens. Highly recommended.
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This is a lovely book brilliantly narrated by Francis, an ageing poet and veteran of the International Brigades. 

Francis has many problems. A batch of his poems seems to have gone missing. His garden is inexplicably starting to rot. His cat Henry disappears. And he worries about being “left behind” as his daughter Gillian prepares to marry and move out of his home in Cleaver Square. 

But Francis also has a more unusual problem, namely that general Franco keeps appearing in his home. But this is 1975 and the real Franco is at death’s door. 

Last Days in Cleaver Square is heartbreaking, slowly unravelling a story of guilt, regret and loss. Francis is pursued by journalist Hugh Supple, who wants to write about his time in Spain. 

Eventually we learn about some of the horrors Francis witnessed, and why he has spent decades carrying around intense shame. 

There is a deep sense of the growing vulnerability that comes with ageing. Francis fears the “curtailment of my freedom of movement” – which really means that he could be stopped from going to the pub. 

But he remains spirited, carrying out small acts of resistance to try and keep control over his own life. 

Francis is captivating as a cantankerous old man, obstinate and set in his ways while worrying about the future. And much of the book is hilarious. 

Gillian’s fiancé, Percy, suggests Francis move in with them. “I can give you a garden, Percy Gauss said. But can you give me a smelly Fascist dictator with blood on his hands who comes into my bed at night and kills all my plants and then demands an apology?” 

Francis gets to display his anti-fascist credentials fantastically during a visit to Madrid after Franco’s death, causing many “diplomatic issues”. 

His enduring radicalism, even as the rest of the world appears to have moved on, is great to read. 

At one point, Francis wonders why he should care about Franco’s atrocities after so many years. “Nobody else does. It is all peace and reconciliation now, all best forgotten. Ha. Not by me.”
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Thank you to Netgalley for an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

A beautifully written warm-hearted book. A little slow to begin with, but thought-provoking and very moving. Recommended.
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I was drawn to this book by the Spanish historical theme which hung around in that imperceptible manner. Penned with such solid empathy, I heard the words narrated to me directly by Francis, feeling his angst about his maundering. Enthralling descriptive writing  made a thoroughly engaging read.
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Francis McNulty is an old man now, in 1975, but his younger self was one of the many men who had gone to aid the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, in his case as a medic. Now he is frail, although he hates the word, and showing signs of mental decline, perhaps even the beginnings of dementia. So when he starts seeing visions of General Franco at first in his garden and then later inside his house, his daughter puts it down to his mental state. Francis is convinced though that Franco, currently on his deathbed in Spain, is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind. 

Told as Francis’ journal in a somewhat disjointed and rambling fashion as befits an elderly, possibly confused man, this is a wonderful picture of someone haunted by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Prior to reading this I had just finished a biography of Franco, the last chapter of which detailed his long-drawn out and rather horrific final days as his body crumbled and haemorrhaged and his doctors refused to allow him to die. It is during those days that Francis, in his home in England, gradually reveals his experiences and finally the incident that has left him with a feeling of guilt all the years since. His hatred of Franco is visceral, his view entirely polarised by the atrocities he witnessed, although there are occasional hints that he is aware that there were atrocities on the Republican side too. We learn of Doc Roscoe, the doctor he worked alongside patching up the wounded under atrocious conditions. We hear the story of Dolores Lopez, now Francis’ middle-aged housekeeper, but back then a child caught up in the siege of Madrid. And we come to understand the haunting, literal and metaphorical, of Francis by his old nemesis, Franco.

But this is not purely or even mostly a political novel. The story Francis reveals is a human one, of unexpected love and loyalty, of betrayal and the search for redemption and forgiveness. Did it make me cry? You betcha! But it also made me laugh, frequently, as Francis gives his often acerbic view of those around him, including his daughter and sister, both of whom he loves dearly but not uncritically. It’s also a wonderful depiction of ageing, with all the pathos of declining physical and mental faculties. There are many parallels between Franco and Francis, not least their names, of course, but their habit in their final days of finding themselves in tears. They each have only one daughter, caring for them at the end of their lives simply as fathers regardless of their past or politics. Francis’ daughter is as well portrayed as Francis himself, as she tries to deal with this difficult, contrary, opinionated man who refuses to accept his increasing limitations. She ranges through patience, worry, irritation, bossiness, and all the other emotions anyone who has cared for an elderly relative will recognise, but there is never any doubt in either the reader’s or Francis’ mind that her overriding emotion towards her father is love.

It’s a short novel, but has so much in it – truly a case where every word counts. Francis, writing privately in his journal, reveals more to the reader than he ever has to those closest to him, especially of his feelings for Doc Roscoe and for other men he has known over the years. Again a beautiful depiction of closeted homosexuality – Francis has chosen the easier path at that period of outwardly leading a heterosexual life. Yet one feels his relationship with his daughter is a major compensation for his lifetime of self-denial. And he is self-aware enough to gently mock himself so that one feels his life has not been a wasteland, although it is only now, as he faces his last days and recognises that his eternal enemy Franco is facing his, that he can finally try to come to terms with his past.

Why have I never come across Patrick McGrath before? A serious omission which I will have to promptly put right. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving, full of emotional truth – this gets my highest recommendation.
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Francis lives out his last days in Cleaver Square, haunted by the ghost of General Franco. When daughter Gilly announces she is going to marry, Francis is forced to confront his past. Set in 1970s London. It's a bit slow at the beginning but the style of writing is so good that I fell in love with the story and the characters.

This is a first for me by the author and one I enjoyed and would read more of their work. The book cover is eye-catching and appealing and would spark my interest if in a bookshop. Thank you very much to the author, publisher and Netgalley for this ARC.

3.5/5.
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I was sent a copy of Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath to read and review by NetGalley.  Very articulate and quite engrossing, this is an engaging, memoir style novel.  Voiced by protagonist Francis McNulty in his later years, we are party to his fears around ageing, his memories of his experience in the Spanish civil war and his guilt surrounding this.  Beautifully and sensitively written, I got totally involved and invested in his story.  Poignant, heartfelt and compelling – an understated little masterpiece.
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Unfortunately this book was not for me and I DNF’d about 1/3 of the way through.
I don’t think that’s a reflection on the book I’m sure it could be a favourite for so many but I just couldn’t connect to the characters or the story.
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I read a lot of great reviews about Patrick McGrath's works but it's the first one I read and I found it brilliant.
It's a bit slow at the beginning but the style of writing is so good that I fell in love with the story and the characters.
Even if the it deals with very serious issue I found it witty and made me smile more than once.
The author is a master storyteller and I find hard to review such an excellent book
Francis is a great character and I won't forget him soon.
It made me laugh and think, kept me hooked and it was a pleasure to read.
A great story featuring great characters.
Highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine
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Francis McNulty is an old man. He lives in Cleaver Square with his daughter Gilly and an ageing Spanish woman Dolores. They have an unwanted guest however, a ghoul by the name of General Franco. Forty years prior to the time of this novel (mid seventies), Francis was a member of the International Brigade fighting against the fascists in Spain. Together with an American, Doc Roscoe, Francis saved Dolores from the collapsed building where her family had died. Francis has many difficult memories from his time in Spain and it is because of this he is haunted by Franco. 

Although I found this book very slow to start with - the style can be rather ponderous at times - I did eventually come to like it a lot. Francis is a vibrant character, twice married but with homosexual leanings, full of guilt about how he betrayed his American friend and literally haunted by his past. He is a poet of some note and befriends a journalist who wants to write a book about his experiences. There are few characters in the novel and this makes it all the richer because all are well developed. The writing is lovely and the central denouement - well, let's just say Franco got what he deserved. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.
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I enjoyed McGrath’s Last Days in Clever Square tremendously. It is a clever, warm-hearted book and its main characters are very well drawn.

It is 1975 and Francis McNulty, our not all too reliable narrator, finds himself haunted by apparitions of Franco, which triggers in McNulty powerful ‘malodorous memories, as though they came from the toilets of hell’. In 1975, Franco's health was deteriorating and he had not much time left to live – a not unimportant fact when it comes to the catharsis in this story. He takes McNulty back to traumas he has suffered during the Spanish Civil War when fighting with the International Brigades. The main theme of this book however is not the Civil War, it is about reconciliation with one’s life when we know there is only little of it left to live. McNulty literally lives out his Last Days In Clever Square and we are privileged to be let into his most secret thoughts and feelings as he comes to terms with the rights and wrongs of the life he has lived.

McNulty is a fabulous character who I’d love to have known. He is as cantankerous and bloody-minded as old men tend to get, but he is also funny and educated, very witty and extremely observant, with a high level of self-awareness. He fiercely defends his independence whilst secretly worrying about getting abandoned by the people he loves. He reflects on the demands old age puts on his mind and body but struggles to accept that others might think him frail. He feels the pleasures of life slipping away from him and describes growing old as a ‘spartan business’, ‘because it demands that you jettison so much that once had been the very zest and pith of life … so that life pithless and sans zest may continue’.

Regularly he creates judgment day for himself and there is one big regret that stands out for him, ‘the shameful tragic death of the one man I ever truly loved’, which is also the source of his day scares and nightmares involving the generalisimo. His tormented mind is briefly relived when he shares his memories, more a confession with the reader where he begs to be absolved. Little he knows then that life will give him one last chance to cleanse himself of his shame. And he uses it to great effect and emerges from it as liberated man.

The end of the book made me feel happy, even if I had to leave McNulty knowing he is seeing out his last days, because it was such a joy to have known him.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Hutchinson/Penguin Random House for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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If you've read any of Patrick McGrath's work before you'll be aware and expect his book to deal with madness, but madness takes many forms. While in books with evocative titles like Asylum, Trauma and Dr. Haggard's Disease is often related to acts of madness in fictional doctors and damaged artists in Gothic asylums, McGrath's writing has extended its range to take in wider dysfunction in American society, as well as the trauma inflicted by historical events, from 9/11 in Ghost Town to the American Revolution years of Martha Peake. What greater collective social madness can there be then than a country involved in a civil war?

Last Days in Cleaver Square has quite a few of McGrath's familiar elements, not least of which is a narrator who appears to be gradually losing his mind, which can only be a good thing for fans of his deliciously delirious fiction, and it is indeed again an artist who is afflicted with the onset of madness here. Francis McNulty is an aging poet who in his youthful idealism to destroy fascism joined the International Brigade in the i930s to fight the Falangists during the Spanish Civil War. Now in his dilapidated London home, his ability to write good poetry waning, he is visited by the ghostly apparition of Generalísimo Franco.

In 1975 however the monster is not yet dead, but he is 84 and very ill with a number of serious health conditions. So why the appearance of the "blackened, viscous, diminished, formless excrescence" of a not yet dead Spanish dictator? Evidently it must be connected to the horrific experiences of Francis during those troubled war years when he was in Madrid, but there are hints that the old Georgian house in Cleaver Square could be haunted by other ghosts in Francis's past. The vividness and realness of the nighttime visitations could also be related to his artistic temperament, and in a Patrick McGrath book, you can imagine that it must be so. The question is where is this all going to lead?

Well, one thing for sure is that you can't entirely trust the first-person narrator in a Patrick McGrath book, particularly one who is suffering from what appears to be mental illness or the onset of dementia. All we have to go on is what Francis tells us, and we aren't quite sure how everyone is reacting to his visions, other than his own perception of it, which is nonetheless a fascinating perspective. Gradually, reluctantly, on the insistence of a journalist, Francis reveals some of his experiences in Spain, his struggles as an artist, and - again not untypical for a McGrath novel - issues of a difficult family background with Oedipal issues and sexual hang-ups. Combine dark secrets, unspoken atrocities and an expanding sense of guilt with old age and a fear of being left behind by the world, and we're heading for trouble.

McGrath handles this Freudian psychodrama in his customary way, with elegant prose of beautiful clarity and precision which only makes occasional observations of family secrets and inclinations of sexual desire made in passing seem all the more eccentric and portentous. This all seems like it is heading for familiar McGrath territory of mental breakdown heading into Gothic horror, but the author finds an unexpected element of humour in all the darkness and - since we all know that Franco does indeed die in 1975 - even a resolution and sense of closure that few of his other tormented protagonists enjoy. The idea that even the worst horrors eventually come to an end is a most welcome sentiment at the present time, even if it's also clear that the scars left behind can take a very long time to heal.
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Last Days In Cleaver Square is a novel by British novelist, Patrick McGrath. Some forty years after he returned from a stint as an ambulance driver with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, Francis McNulty is still living in the Cleaver Square house in which he grew up. A published poet renowned for his verse inspired by his time in Spain, he is annoyed his work-in-progress is missing.

“I was once a poet. I can’t write it now, poetry. Those rivers of imagery that, oh! – that once swept through my imagination like ancient mighty waters in flood? All long since departed”

Downstairs lives his housekeeper, Dolores Lopez, whom he saved and brought to London after her family was killed during the bombing of Madrid. His daughter Gillian, a civil servant with the Foreign Office, shares the upper floors with him, but plans to marry Sir Percy Gauss, meaning Francis will be alone again. 

Perhaps it’s the news of the dying Spanish dictator, the courts martial, the executions, that cause Franco to appear: first in the street, then his beloved garden (afflicted by mildew, Francis blames the generalisimo’s foul presence), and even in his bedroom. 

“Fraying dark blue sash, badly rusted medals, red tassels, gold piping, various arm-of-service insignia and crossed muskets under a double bugle with a red diamond on each collar point. Riding boots, filthy, as though he’d come through a cowshed or a military toilet. He was decrepit and unclean, he was sickly looking, falling apart, in fact, and he stank.”

Gilly is concerned when he reveals who he has seen. “She suspects I am losing my mind.” She may refer to it as an apparition, but Francis knows the dictator is really there, a ghoul he is sure that Dolores also sees, a ghoul demanding an apology. 

When his older sister Finty arrives, months early for her December visit, Francis knows Gilly has been sharing her worries about him. There’s talk of selling the house, which he certainly won’t allow; they tell him “You forget things, and you make things up”, and yes, his poems are missing, he is plagued by nightmares, he sometimes gets a little confused, but moving in with his daughter and her new husband? Unthinkable!

“You are thinking of your garden, of course. Was I thinking of my garden? I was now. And when I thought of my garden I thought about blight, and the causes of blight. – I can give you a garden, Percy Gauss said. But can you give me a smelly Fascist dictator with blood on his hands who comes into my bed at night and kills all my plants and then demands an apology? I did not say this.”

Meanwhile, Francis regularly slips out across the Square to the Earl of Rochester, to chat over a gin and tonic to Hugh Supple, a journalist who is writing “a long piece for the Manchester Guardian about my experiences in Spain as a way to provide what he called a living context to the poetry.” Francis finds himself sharing details he had no intention of ever revealing, a guilty secret that has haunted him for decades.

This is very much a literary read: the prose is gorgeous, evocative and full of subtle humour (although the reason Franco demands an apology is laugh-out-loud funny); a familiarity with the Spanish Civil War might enhance the enjoyment, but is not essential; the narrator is unreliable, a rather bitter, perhaps slightly demented old man, frail but stubborn, who nonetheless draws the reader’s empathy. 

Filled with sharp dialogue and wit, this is a powerful and beautifully written tale. Sadly, it loses half a star of the potential 4.5 star rating for indulging in the arrogant and annoying editorial affectation of omitting quote marks for speech, but a worthwhile read, all the same.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House UK
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