THE PATHS OF destiny stretch out ahead of the protagonists at the start of Patrick McGrath's new novel. Jack Rathbone, an aspiring painter, is marked out for a lifetime of stormy romance and the anguish and ecstasy of pursuing his art; Vera Savage, the bohemian artist who deserts her husband for Jack, is fated to bring glimpses of heaven and hell to her lover's life; Peg, their first daughter, will die young and in mysterious circumstances. Then there's Gin, Jack's sister and our narrator, destined never to find a man to match her brother, and to observe his gradual creative and personal disintegration. From the outset, McGrath - a master of prolepsis (flash-forward, to you and me) - lets us glimpse much of what lies in store for his characters. The result is that an air of impending doom hangs over the story, leaving us to unravel how they will meet their desperate fates. It is the stuff of neo-Gothic melodrama, and few of his contemporaries use it as well as McGrath has done over the years. In Port Mungo, however, his manipulations are less assured than usual.
Events begin in 1950s London, where Jack, a seventeen- year-old art student, embarks on his affair with Vera, a visiting lecturer. Renowned both as a painter and as a promiscuous, louche sort, she runs off with Jack to New York. When the American art world fails to embrace them or