McGrath expertly deploys some of his trademark elements, as with the double-edged naming of Cleaver Square – he has had characters called Cleave in the past – and is unfailingly deft in his handling of trauma and deceit. Tiny elements fleetingly present in the story return later on like a whole arsenal of Chekhov’s guns to be duly discharged, or occasionally decommissioned. By its conclusion Last Days in Cleaver Square manages to pull off the impressive trick of being narratively coherent and satisfying, yet still true to the messy businesses of memory, ageing, guilt and how to tell the story of a life.
At times this novel reads like a culmination, a greatest hits package, of McGrath’s skills. The narrative voice might be his ripest yet, and his ability to bottle an atmosphere is displayed not just with the scenes in Spain in 1936, but in “the last living jungle in south London”, Francis’s home in Cleaver Square, the container that shapes his personality and which his daughter now wants him to leave. We also get names you can roll around your mouth — a sister named Finty, a cat called Henry Threshold — and an intimacy in Francis’s voice that makes the reader feel part of the story.