Yet another psychiatrist in love and trouble: Trauma, by Patrick McGrath

April 16, 2008 at 8:12 pm (Book review, books, Uncategorized)

Charlie Weir is a divorced psychiatrist who lives and practices in Manhattan. When we first meet him, he is mourning the death of his mother, a troubled, difficult woman. This loss becomes the occasion for much soul searching. Recollections come flooding in, nearly all of them unpleasant or disturbing. The Weirs are a family that seems to revel in dysfunction. Charlie’s father Fred, an alcoholic, left them when Charlie and his brother Walt were still boys. Their mother suffered from bouts of depression. Currently, Charlie resents Walt, an artist whose successes, both personal and professional, are a sore point.

Charlie had first met Agnes, his ex-wife, while he was treating her brother Danny, a Vietnam vet. Danny had been caught in a downward spiral, unable to deal with a particularly traumatic event experienced in combat. Charlie and Agnes married after a brief courtship. At the same time, Charlie had persisted in his effort to help Danny, whose fate ultimately caused the marriage to end. As the novel opens, Agnes has remarried, and she and Charlie have managed to stay on reasonably good terms, largely for the sake of their daughter Cassie. Hearing of Charlie’s loss, Agnes rushes to comfort him. And stays on, to comfort him further, in bed.

The “comforting” continues. Agnes’s husband Leo seems strangely absent from the scene. Then Walt introduces Charlie to the (somewhat) mysterious Nora Chiara. She and Charlie are instantly attracted to each other; an affair begins almost immediately. Meanwhile, Charlie continues to sleep with Agnes. At this point, one does not have to be especially perceptive to catch sight of the looming train wreck. But the form that it assumes is not what you’d expect.

Charlie Weir’s specialty is helping people deal with repressed traumatic events by remembering them and confronting them. The hope is that by taking these steps, individuals can reduce, or even vitiate altogether, the trauma’s power to damage and warp their lives. In the course of his career, Charlie has had considerable success in helping patients to achieve this goal. But the trauma that he most needs to deal with lies buried deep inside his own psyche.

I’ve read several novels by Patrick McGrath. What distinguishes them is his exceptionally fine prose and his laserlike ability to penetrate and illuminate the vagaries of the human heart. And he is particularly good at conveying the torments of one whose mind is full of scorpions. (Yes, I know, I’ve used that phrase from Macbeth before, but it is so vivid – and often so apt: “How full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!”)

McGrath was born and raised in Britain. His father, a distinguished psychiatrist, was for many years the medical superintendent at Broadmoor, England’s famed high security hospital for, among others, criminals who are unfit to plead. The elder McGrath was not averse to sharing the stories of his patients with his young son, who admits he was enthralled by them. (Patrick McGrath currently lives in New York City, and Trauma is very much a New York novel.)

Last year I read another fiction title with a psychiatrist as the protagonist: The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers. I’ve taken every opportunity to rave about that stellar novel. While I don’t think Trauma quite measures up to the work by Vickers, it is still very, very good, and I recommend it.


  1. “Personal best” for 2008: Fiction, with a (brief, I promise!) sentimental digression « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Trauma by Patrick McGrath. McGrath is a master of the psychological novel; I also recommend an earlier work in this vein,  Asylum. […]

  2. Deb said,

    I’ve been looking for other books–novels–with psychiatrists as protagonists and stumbled across this post during my search. So I can now add two more books. Thanks!

    I’m the author of “I. Joseph Kellerman,” about a troubled psychiatrist who’s not left his Boston rowhouse for more than four years. Dr. Kellerman is very loosely based on a real man, a Holocaust survivor and very controversial psychoanalyst who practiced in Brooklyn until he passed away in the early ’90s. If you’re interested in finding out more about my novel, go to

  3. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Vickers Elephanta Suite – Paul Theroux On Chesil Beach, Saturday, Enduring Love – Ian McEwan Trauma – Patrick McGrath Cleaver – Tim Parks Senator’s Wife – Sue Miller The Northern Clemency […]

  4. alexdonald said,

    Love Patrick McGrath and have never read the Vickers book so on your recommendation I think that’ll be my next purchase.

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