Mother of Darkness by Venetia Welby

Reviewed by Annabel

Old Soho ain’t what it used to be. The former centre of London’s seedier side has been largely poshed up, gentrified and made chic for new money – ‘suited and booted’. The days of the clip joints faking champagne and the Kinks’ big hit Lola are long gone.

Many who live there yearn for the good old, bad old days including Matty Corani, who wasn’t born until the 1990s. He wakes in his small bedsit after a nightmare in which a woman dies in childbirth in Egypt – she was his mother, and that’s what happened.

Matty hangs out of the window gasping lungfuls of London air until he feels the snake crushing his chest being to slacken. Another Valium and he is able to slow his system long enough to admire his shaking hands cease their frenzied conduction. The night sweat of panic dries saltily upon his body and rational thought returns to battle the visions in his nightmare. (p5)

That’s just one of Matty’s nightmares. He walked away from a car crash that left his girlfriend Tera dead and his younger half-brother Ruben in a persistent vegetative state. He’d been sure that Tera had cheated on him with Ruben.

He wants to run to Ben’s hospital bedside and kill him. He should have died. He could have forgiven Tera, if only she had lived. He’s not dreaming now but he can’t bring himself to leave the memory, to live there and not here. (p26)

So with no mother, a diplomat father who doesn’t care about him, brother in a coma, peripatetic childhood moving from embassy to embassy with different stepmothers in each country and suffering boarding school, it’s easy, although not excusable, to see why Matty started taking drugs and dropped out of his university course.

The drugs all come via Matty’s one and only friend, known as Fix. After the crash:

Matty had tried to spend as much time away from reality as he could, lost in a trance harnessed and honed by a steady stream of uppers and downers. Fix was the gatekeeper; he could open or close the portal to that dream life. (p11)

Matty has told his psychotherapist that he’s not taking recreational drugs, just that he’s grief-stricken after Tera’s death. She doesn’t really believe him but goes along with it at the start, encouraging him to write his life story out to discuss in their sessions. When he starts missing appointment after appointment later, she gets really concerned, especially once his memoirs start becoming mystical and indicating full-blown psychosis.

Matty had been studying Philosophy and Greek, and his psychosis is deeply rooted in that. In Aeschylus’s Oresteia plays, Orestes murders his mother Clytemnestra and is hunted down by the Furies and eventually tried for it – Matty could be Orestes having ‘killed’ his mother in childbirth, however he chooses to mainly identify with the main character in Euripedes’ Bacchae instead, Dionysus. In his imagination though he is not the God of Wine, but the God of Drugs, calling himself Mandrax. Fix appears in these visions as the prophet Feracor. A hallucinating Matty who had been thinking about Tolkien and Frodo’s quest finds himself at Piccadilly Circus:

…all of the neon advertisements show Feracor, eyes flashing purple as he greets him. The Fourth Age is dying, Man, he says from seven different flashing boards high above Matty’s head. The Fifth Age is dawning. (p194)

The story of Matty’s descent into full-blown psychosis alternates throughout the book with the chapters of his memoir he writes for Dr Sykes, Dr Sykes’ psych (geddit!) reports on their sessions and emails and then Matty’s visions of Mandrax, Feracor and other subversions of Greek tragedies, myths and legends and even the bible.

My, this is a bleak story, and frankly I found Matty’s visions increasingly hard-going. However they serve to illustrate his increasing alienation from the normal world and his narcissistic belief that he is made for better things. The blurb describes it as “wry and darkly comic”, but only the early stages and Matty’s autobiographical writings really match that description. I did enjoy Matty’s memoirs which you soon realise are not quite the real story either. You could feel for Matty, and be wringing your hands along with the few good people in the world who still care for him. There is a shocking climax, although probably not what you may be predicting having read this review.

Welby’s novel is experimental and tricksy. It will appeal to those who like the Ancient Greeks combined with the psychological analysis. As a first novel it is not flawless, juggling so many balls at once but, in Matty, Welby has created a memorable protagonist in the brilliant setting of Soho and I am intrigued to see where she goes next.

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Venetia Welby, Mother of Darkness (Quartet, 2017) 9780704374294, hardback, 285 pages.

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