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Martha Peake: A Novel of the Revolution Paperback – May 14, 2002

3.2 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"It is a black art, the writing of a history, is it not?" So begins Martha Peake, a gripping narrative that takes the reader back to London and America during the revolutionary epoch of the 1770s. Patrick McGrath's sixth work of fiction begins several decades later, when young Ambrose Tree is summoned to visit his dying Uncle William at Drogo Hall. Assuming that he is about to inherit his uncle's estate, he rushes across Lambeth Marsh to the great manor house. Instead, though, he's promptly drawn into his uncle's extraordinary story of Harry Peake and his headstrong young daughter, Martha.

Harry, "to whom Nature in her folly gave the soul of a smuggler, and the tongue of a poet," was a Cornish smuggler, horrifically mutilated in a fire that killed his wife and dispersed his children. Only Martha stood by him. As the story unfolds, she follows her father to London, where the self-anointed, poetry-spouting "Cripplegate Monster" displays his hideously deformed body in the taverns and watering holes of London's underworld. Soon Harry comes to the sinister attentions of Lord Drogo, who "wanted him for his Museum of Anatomy." As father and daughter are drawn into this gentleman scientist's world, Harry turns to drink, catastrophically abusing Martha and sending her fleeing to America, where she becomes embroiled in the struggle for independence from England. At this point, the story may seem to have wandered far afield. But as Martha Peake reaches its climax, Ambrose realizes that the fate of both parent and child is much closer to home than he could ever have imagined.

Practicing the black art of storytelling to near-perfection, Patrick McGrath has produced a wonderful tale of "sacrifice and abomination and heroism and resolve and victory." The book's darkness and intermittent grotesquerie will cement his New Gothic reputation. Still, Martha Peake belongs more arguably in the company of Charles Dickens, whose literary ghost haunts these pages no less powerfully than those of the tragic father-and-daughter team. --Jerry Brotton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Known as a spinner of elegant neo-gothic thrillersDthe sort full of psychological tension but narrow in scopeDMcGrath tackles a much broader canvas in his sweeping new novel about the American Revolution. At the heart of McGrath's tale are a fatherDHarry Peake, an energetic Cornwall man broken by calamityDand his daughter and helpmate, Martha. Like many of his countrymen, Harry smuggles to avoid the excise, but after a nearly bungled job, his spine is broken and he is transformed into a misshapen monster. He sets off for London with eight-year-old Martha, earning money at first by exhibiting his deformed spine and later by performing his own Ballad of Joseph Tresilian, an allegory about the king's tyranny over the colonists. Although Harry's reputation growsDenough to attract the attention of Lord Drogo, an anatomist interested in collecting rare bonesDhe succumbs to drink and far worse, endangering now teenaged Martha and forcing her to flee to her cousins in America. But it is 1774, and those cousins, living in a fishing community north of Boston, are committed patriots. Martha throws her lot in with the Americans, but her loyalty to her father threatens her and the other colonists and, finally, determines her destiny. All this is narrated half a century later by Ambrose Tree, nephew of Lord Drogo's assistant, Dr. William Tree. Like many of McGrath's earlier narrators, Ambrose is unreliable; he recounts, and embellishes, the tales his uncle William tells at night in drafty Drogo Hall. As Ambrose's questionable assumptions are proved true or false, what is betrayed is not the oh-so-familiar black heart of the narrator but the sweet heroism of the protagonists. McGrath (Asylum) takes a big risk, but the result is an invigorating take on the Revolution, just the tonic for even the most jaded reader during this election season. Agent, Amanda Urban at ICM.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (May 14, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375701311
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375701313
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,495,662 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Laura G. Carter on December 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I recently had the great privilege of hearing Mr. McGrath perform a reading from Chapters 5 & 6 of "Martha Peake". Wonderful! Why he doesn't do his own audio books - with his cultured yet mercurial British accent, clear tones, dramatic presentation and emotive voice - is beyond me. After the reading, he was most gracious, signing books and chatting with all of us individually in an unhurried manner that suggested he enjoyed every minute of the event.
Now, to "Martha Peake". McGrath told us that this was his first attempt at an "historical" novel. Being a Civil War buff myself, I found it refreshing that he set it during the American Revolution, a period about which I read shockingly little. The first half of the novel takes place in England and McGrath told us that in order to capture the feeling of London's public houses and pubs, as well as the characters who inhabited them, he'd spent a great deal of time studying the novels of Charles Dickens and examining prints and artworks depicting the period. His efforts were well-rewarded in scenes set in crowded pubs filled with people from all walks of life - from footpads to the aristocratic and sinister Lord Drogo. You can smell the smoke from their pipes, taste the stale beer and ale and hear the customers' raucous laughter and the strident tones of the barmaids heaving libatious mugs onto long, wooden tables while getting pinched in the rear by way of reward.
Harry Peake, Martha's father and the focal point of the first half of the book, is so clear a character as to warrant his own novel. One could well compare him in depth to the evil butler, Fledge, of McGrath's "The Grotesque" (later made into the movie "Grave Indiscretion" starring Sting and Alan Bates).
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Format: Hardcover
Patrick McGrath is known for writing dark, tightly-woven gothic novels which are either good (Asylum, Spider) or unforgettable (Dr Haggard's Disease). With Martha Peake the author has deviated from his successful formula and tries for something more ambitious. Did he succeed? Well...
Martha Peake is an epic novel about a young English woman who escapes the clutches of her drunken father and escapes to America ... just when the American revolution was about to start. The novel reads more like historical fiction than a gothic novel. While there are dark, sinister elements to the story I was never really frightened or caught off-guard. Perhaps it is because McGrath spends so much time telling us about the proud and fearless freedom fighters that the gothic elements of the story are swept aside.
Oh, there are positive elements to Martha Peake. Firstly, the characterization of our heroine is really well done. And of course Patrick McGrath can churn out English prose better than most anyone else. So Martha Peake is not an unpleasent read, just vaguely disappointing - especially for those who know McGrath has done much better.
Bottom line: opportunity missed, although McGrath fans will probably want to add it to their collection.
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By marys on January 27, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I read this because I was interested in a book assigned to my daughter (sophomore in H.S.). Her assiginment was to report on a historical fiction book. She chose this book because it purportedly had "romance" in it. I found it far removed from any historical content. In fact, the romance is actually an abusive father-daughter relationship. One half the book takes place in England, the other half in the U.S. The Revolutiion or any historical event is tangential at best and it veers so far from having historical content that it is almost laughable. I personally found the book wanting in theme, character, plot and historical background.
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Format: Hardcover
I like McGrath's gothic storytelling, and was looking forward to getting my hands on his first attempt at "historical fiction", as the novel is depicted on the jacket as a "novel of the revolution." Having just finished Martha Peake, I must say I was impressed with the ending and many early passages in London, but was frustrated at long passages of the novel.
First, although promising to be about the American Revolution, the novel is about half way over before the action ever gets to Massachussets Bay. The first half of the novel has nothing at all to do with the battle for American independence, and in fact I think a good editor could've pared down the opening 140 pages to about 90. The story of Harry's tragic fall, the fire that destroyed his spine and devastated his family, etc. were very well told and moving. But his constant battles with gin got a bit tiring until his daughter Martha sought refuge in gloomy Drogo Hall, rising from grassy Lambeth Marsh within sight of the distant lights and smoke of London, where the story picked up steam again.
The novel is narrated by Ambrose Tree, a young man called to Drogo Hall by his sick uncle William, from whom he hopes to inherit the manor. William tells an eager Ambrose the story of Harry and Martha Peake, and that story within a story is relayed to us in the course of the novel. As usual, McGrath is not content to simply use a third person narrator to tell his tale, and as usual his narrative tricks take their toll on the reader and present some problems.
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