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Last Days in Cleaver Square

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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.

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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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"I did it for Doc, whom I'd grievously betrayed, and about whom my guilt is a mordant canker which has gnawed at my innards for more years than I can remember, and this I only confess to you now, having deceived you as to my true condition, and pretended a soundness of mind and spirit which I frankly do not possess.'

There is no deception; we know that our dear narrator is unreliable, we do not know what is real or what is imagined, what is history or what is exaggerated - but that is part of the point I think, who of us can ever be entirely reliable? 

Francis Mcnulty is coming to the end of his life, he fought in the Spanish Civil War and spent the years afterwards as a successful poet. He lives with his only daughter Gilly in his childhood home on Cleaver Square, but things are starting to move on; Gilly is engaged to be married and Francis is feeling his own mortality. He is visited regularly by a ghoul, an apparition, who Francis is convinced is General Franco who himself is close to death in Spain

Told, almost as a series of diary entries, Patrick McGrath's language is elegant and poetic yet it retains a breathtaking precision. Quoted as having the ability to expose our darkest fears without making us run away from them, he has the power to beguile his reader in a way that you are swept away and will happily follow wherever he takes you. And he takes you to the darkest of corners; the secret that has haunted for most of your life, the realisation that you cannot stop the passage of time; the inevitable end, but in a way that brings a quiet acceptance, a sense of calm. There is a humour in his writing, a smile, an encouraged chuckle and even actual laughter - his nuanced prose leaves you with a new friend, you care about Francis, he matters. 

'For oh dear, it is a spartan business, this growing old, this cleaving to life, because it demands that you jettison so much that once had been the very zest and pith of life, and why? So that life, pithless, and sans zest, may continue, and the flesh, oh, the flesh, the sins of the flesh - they are as motes in a fading sunbeam. And how I do miss them. Yes.'

Dear, dear Francis McNulty will follow me and I will think of him, in the way that you do a cherished grandparent - the best of relatives; those frustrating, cantankerous humans, full of vigour and spirit. This novel tackles dark and difficult subject matter, but it left with the overriding feeling that aging is a privilege and an honour and above all something to embrace and kick the hell out of! 

Thanks to #netgalley and #hutchinson for allowing me to read this ARC in return for an honest review.
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London, 1975. Francis McNulty, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and now an old man, is haunted by visions of General Franco...

A few days on from finishing Last Days in Cleaver Square, I still have mixed feelings about it. The writing style of this novel is rather unusual and, although I did eventually become accustomed to it, I can't help feeling that it detracted from my enjoyment of the book as a whole for me. 

My other quibble centres did the fact that the reader has to wait quite a while for the narrator to take us back to the Spain of the 1930s;  these scenes when they finally arrive are intensely moving, but also frustratingly few.  Whilst the protagonist's reluctance to revisit his painful past makes narrative sense, I would have liked a little more detail here. 

Despite these qualms, I found this to be a thoughtfully written book.  I liked the unreliability of the narrator. His voice felt real to me and his bitterness at life poignant. 

If you're looking for a novel that will stay with you beyond the final page, this could very well be the book for you.
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Wonderful. Evocative. Sensitive.
I had never heard of the poet Francis McNulty but this reflection on his life and death by his friend (the author) is delightfully expressed.
At first this was a ghost story - there is a ghoul. But the ghoul is the Italian fascist leader General Franco. He haunts McNulty's bedroom while also in the basement is Dolores Lopez who he helped to escape the Spanish Civil War in a ship to England with other refugees.
Literary figures and many other 'shallow sorts of socialists' as the writer states joined the revolutionary forces in 1936 as Franco took the lead in Spain just as Hitler did in Germany, destroying and killing all in their opposition wake.  George Orwell was another such fighter, who with his wife took up arms in Europe when many at home (including politicians and royalty) remained in awe of Hitler and his ilk.
The implication is also that McNulty may also have dementia. Care is required for him. His daughter Gilly is around and the glorious sister Finty arrives with her paints from the distant isles in Scotland.  Gilly has a love interest with Sir Percy and links with the Foreign Office and diplomacy for them both.
My favourite scenes were when McNulty accompanies the family to Madrid and all the past memories come crashing in. That this collides with the death in 1975 of his ghoul Franco makes the whole story weave towards an emotional end in all ways.
Superb read. I must seek out McNulty's poetry.
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Last Days in Cleaver Square sees a Spanish civil war veteran close to death, haunted by Franco’s spectre thanks to a terrible act of betrayal committed during the war. London, Autumn 1975. A veteran of the war, poet and fragile elderly gentleman Francis McNulty had once fought on the Republican side and now almost 40 years later he has become delusional and is frequently beset with sightings in his garden of his old nemesis, General Franco. Living in Cleaver Square, a scruffy location in Kennington, South London, his regular episodes of seeing Franco in his full military uniform complete with rusty medals not only deeply trouble Francis but also his middle-aged, newly engaged daughter Gillian, who lives with him in the eponymous square; her soon to be husband is none other than Sir Percy Gauss of the Foreign Office. And while Franco is still alive, although currently on his deathbed, he is, in reality, thousands of miles away in a palace laden with romantic painter Francisco Goya’s expensive artworks in Madrid. 

After Francis wakes up screaming having purportedly seen Franco by his bedside, Gilly summons her Aunt Finty from her home on the remote Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. Artist Finty and her younger brother Francis have always been close and spent their formative years growing up in the same Cleaver Square property. Those around Francis can see how far gone he is, and do their utmost to help care for him, including live-in housekeeper Dolores Lopez, an orphan of the civil war who Francis rescued at the tender age of eight and of course Gilly and Finty. Francis' account of his haunting is by turns witty, cantankerous and nostalgic. At times he drifts back to his days in Madrid when he rescued a young girl from a burning building and brought her back to London with him; that girl was Dolores. There are other, darker events from that time, involving an American surgeon called Doc Roscoe, and a brief, terrible act of betrayal he cannot shake from his mind. 

When Gillian announces her forthcoming marriage to a senior civil servant, Francis realises he has to adapt to new circumstances and confront his past once and for all.  Last Days in Cleaver Square is a compelling, captivating and deeply poignant story and one we can all relate to as it explores ageing, guilt, the fallibility of memory and the importance of both legacy and family. It's richly atmospheric as well as powerful and moving but it is not without its humour and is peopled with beautiful humanised characters. Underpinning the narrative is an omnipresent sense of dread that continues to creep for the entirety and a first-person narrator who is wildly unreliable giving rise to an air of unpredictability. It's a dramatic yet understated and nuanced tale that is ostensibly a reckoning with the past and a nod to the legacy of midcentury fascism. Sensitive themes such as deceit and trauma are deftly handled and culminate in a satisfying conclusion in which Francis attains peace and clears his conscience before passing on. Highly recommended.
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This is a beautiful written book about Francis McNulty and his home in Cleaver Street. He was in Spain when Franco caused so much death and destruction.  But now Francis is seeing France’s ghoul in his home. 
How can Francis find peace? Read and enjoy every page while you find out.
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