by Patrick Gale
A departure from his books set in the present day or recent past and based in his beloved West Cornwall, this story is set mainly in Canada in the late Edwardian era. It is the imagined story of Harry Cane, Gale’s real-life great grandfather. Obliged to leave England and a comfortable middle-class family life, he sets out for Saskatchewan in Canada to begin a new life as a pioneer farmer.
Gale knows how a focus on detail: the intricacies of the farming life, the tools used, the tasks that define the day and the year of Harry and his fellow farmers. It is one of the things that makes Gale’s writing, and this story in particular, so appealing . The other thing is his sensitive portrayal of the characters that populate his novels. Yes, there is an exploration of sexuality, and Gale recognises that much of what Harry, as a gay man in the early twentieth century, may have felt and experienced must have been impossible to put into words, because appropriate language was not available to his character. Gale faithfully describes Harry’s experiences and feelings as they might have appeared to him.
The other main characters in this novel are equally strong and believable: the taciturn, strong and caring Paul; the practical and unconventional Petra; Harry’s in-laws, the Wells family, who dominate the first part of the novel and show a busy, bustling and matriarchal family life reminiscent of a Woolf novel.
The ‘baddie’, Troels Munck, on the other hand comes across almost as an ogre. His evil nature is palpable in the way he looks, sounds and behaves every time we encounter him in the novel. He is a classic bully, and somehow larger than life – physically as well as metaphorically. And this is indeed a powerful way of portraying him, as bullies do loom large in the lives of those who have the misfortune to encounter and be pursued by them. Munck, not content with the opportunistic lifestyle that seems to meet his needs very well, goes out of his way to hurt others.
Interspersed with the narrative is a flash-forward to Harry’s experiences in a therapeutic community setting, where people with various kinds of mental disorders (as they were then perceived) are allowed relative freedoms in an experimental environment. The treatment he receives here is contrasted to the more conventional asylum therapies of the time: immersion in baths, wrapping in cold towels, sedation and restraints of various kinds.
I have not quite finished reading this book – am saving the last couple of chapters for later today or tomorrow. In many ways I don’t want to reach the end of a story that has held me captivated throughout. Gale at his storytelling best.