‘Let there be no more of this clucking and wheedling. Oh Pa, are you sure? Or: Oh Francis, is this really a good idea? Let me be clear. I am always sure, and it is always a good idea.’
An old man is sleeping fitfully. It’s too hot. The air is thick with Spanish Jasmine floating in from his overgrown garden. And he’s not sure whether he’ll be woken by General Franco sitting on the end of his bed.
It’s 1975 and Francis McNulty is nearing the end of his life but feeling far from peaceful. A veteran of the Spanish Civil War, he is tormented by grief and guilt about a brief, terrible act of betrayal from that time; and he’s started seeing his old nemesis on the street, in the garden and now in his bedroom. Neither he nor his daughter Gillian, who lives with him in Cleaver Square, know what to do.
When Gillian announces her impending marriage to a senior civil servant, Francis realises that he must adapt to new circumstances – and that the time has come to confront his past once and for all.
Francis McNulty lives in Cleaver Square with his grown-up daughter, Gillian. While they seem generally content, upheaval comes as Gilly announces her intention to marry, and that she and her future husband would like Francis to move in with them. It’s clear to both Gilly and the reader that Francis is no longer fully able to care for himself, and yet something of a battle ensues as he refuses their offer. While Francis would have you believe that he is completely compos mentis, he experiences moments of confusion and forgetfulness. It’s not referred to as such, but it seems strongly suggestive of dementia to me. For Francis, I think that admitting to the necessity of Gillian’s offer is a step too far for his pride to take. I sympathised with him and understood his desire to maintain some semblance of independence, even as I appreciated the difficulty it causes for Gilly.
While Francis and Gilly stand off on this point, we learn more about Francis’s past and his experience in the Spanish Civil War. He worked as an ambulance driver, assisting with medical procedures for the American Doc Roscoe where required, learning in the field out of necessity. While McGrath doesn’t focus on the inevitable atrocities of war, it was clearly an awful experience, particularly for Francis as he reveals that he was captured and held prisoner for a time during the conflict. As he relates his experiences, he seems to shy away from an event which is eventually revealed to be an act of betrayal on his part that he regrets deeply, so much so that it keeps him awake at night and that we come to understand he is seeking absolution for as the novel progresses.
In 1975, General Franco is struggling with his own illness in Madrid, and yet is simultaneously haunting Francis in London. Francis is very convincing in these experiences which he can describe at length, even reporting a smell which accompanies the apparition. I wasn’t sure what to make of this element at first, and yet the more I read about Francis’s experiences, the more I came to see his haunting as symbolic of his regrets, so closely tied to the Spanish Civil War that they’ve taken on Franco’s face. Francis would have you believe otherwise, of course, but he and I will have to agree to disagree on that point.
Last Days in Cleaver Square is a novel that is quite hard to read in some respects, touching as it does upon Francis McNulty’s sense of mortality in what he sees as his last days, the title taking on quite a literal meaning as the novel progresses. Despite this, it’s not a dark novel and there are some genuinely light-hearted moments, not least Francis’s last act of revenge against Franco. It’s a moment that brings huge joy to him, and while he is occasionally a cantankerous old git, I cheered for him in that moment, despite the trouble it causes. Last Days in Cleaver Square is a poignant tale of getting old and letting go of past regrets, familial love and loyalty, and the difficulty that sometimes stems from both.
Last Days in Cleaver Square is published by Hutchinson, an imprint of Penguin Random House, on 20 May in hardback, eBook, and audio formats. With thanks to Etty Eastwood for the review copy.