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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Irish Pregnancy, Shaw's Life, Insanity

A few years ago Ireland was rocked to its moral foundations by the case of a 14-year-old girl who had been raped and made pregnant by a family friend. The girl was banned by the Irish government, which forbids abortion in any circumstances, from traveling to Britain to have the operation.


Irish writer Edna O'Brien has taken the case history of this poor, unnamed girl and transformed her into Mary MacNamara, a young teenager who is being sexually abused by her father, in her new novel Down by the River (Weidenfeld, ?15.99 or $24). In a series of short chapters which tumble compulsively toward the predictably bleak ending, O'Brien tells the story in intense and intimate prose of what happens when a young girl's dark secret becomes public knowledge. It is an unedifying tale of betrayal, hypocrisy and puffed-up principle.


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The thesis behind Sally Peters' readable, but overly speculative, investigation into the personal life of George Bernard Shaw, Bernard Shaw: The Ascent of the Superman (Yale University Press, $28.50) is that he was a closet homosexual.


In a series of essays full of innuendo, supposition and purely circumstantial evidence, Peters, a visiting lecturer in liberal studies at Wesleyan University, claims to prove that the man behind the diabolical red beard and the Jaeger wool suits was tormented by the secret of his sexuality.


Certainly his only documented heterosexual encounter was pitiful enough. Jane "Jenny" Patterson, an older widow, deflowered him on his 29th birthday at her own initiative. And Peters suggests that Shaw's late marriage to the millionaire Charlotte Payne-Townsend was never consummated.


However there is nothing to prove that Shaw had a gay liaison with the "marvelous boy," actor-playwright Harley Granville Barker, beyond a reference in Shaw's diary to Barker's unsuitability for marriage, and some admittedly surprising photographs of the two men cavorting on a beach in diaphanous loin cloths. But readers will have to judge for themselves if this was a Hockneyesque swimfest, or the behavior of two actors who could not resist dressing up.


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English writer Patrick McGrath grew up in Broadmoor, a high-security hospital prison for the criminally insane. His father was the medical superintendent there and McGrath's first friends were the murderers and rapists who tended the family garden.


Although he has written his childhood reminiscences and a novel from a patient's perspective, Asylum (Viking, ?16 or $24) is his first attempt to describe the workings of "a top security hospital in terms of the staff."


Narrated by a jaundiced old psychiatrist called Dr. Cleave, the novel describes in impeccable prose the symbolic struggle between insanity and mental health when Stella Raphael, the wife of Max-the-psychiatrist and mother of Charlie, falls in love with one of her husband's patients, wife-murderer and sculptor Edgar Stark.





-- Compiled from the Los Angeles Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent and The Guardian.