A Place called Winter

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.


A Perfectly Good Man

by Patrick Gale

This is the second Patrick Gale book that I have read, and the first one I bought. It is interesting to see how the characters from Pictures from an Exhibition find their places in this story and are further developed, though they are not central to the plot. Gale’s setting is the South West, and specifically West Cornwall, where almost all the action occurs.  He evidently knows this area well, and sees no need to look beyond it, as all of human life is here.  A bit like John Updike and his stories of small-town New England.

The ‘perfectly good man’ of the title is Barnaby Johnson, a Church of England vicar in a small parish in West Cornwall.  The story starts with the dramatic suicide of a young man, Lenny Barnes, who has suffered a sports injury that has left him seriously and permanently disabled.  As the story unfolds, we learn more about him, his mother, Barnaby, Barnaby’s family and their back stories, told through the character of each of them at different points in their lives.  This is an interesting device and one which, in my view, succeeds.  We don’t learn any more about Lenny’s connection to Barnaby until about halfway through the novel, and there is still plenty of dramatic tension even beyond this point.

The characters seem real and all-too-human.  They are likeable, with all their flaws – apart from one character, Modest Carlsson (his adopted name after release from prison) who is a sinister presence throughout the book, seemingly the cause of all the bad stuff that happens.  Is he a demonic figure?  Possibly.  Gale introduces a certain amount of theology into his writing, and the different characters’ relationships with God are also an important part of their makeup.  Carlsson indirectly, through a malicious act, sets Barnaby on a course of action that will change his life.  His devious extracting of Johnson’s biggest secret and his deliberately hurtful retelling of it is the apparent cause of a death towards the end of the book.  Who knows what other harm he may have caused?  Certainly, by the end of the story, the reader no longer has any sympathy (if they ever did) with his story about how his earlier conviction for child sex offences came about and “wasn’t really his fault”.

As a real-life incarnation of evil, Carlsson is believable and very sinister.

A good book, on a par with Notes from an Exhibition, in my view.

Notes from an exhibition

by Patrick Gale

This is the first book I have read by this author, introduced to me by my Cornwall-dwelling aunt.

I found the characters engaging and believable, especially Rachel herself. I am not qualified to say whether the portrayal of someone with bipolar disorder is realistic or not, but it was certainly convincing.  Family life rang true: a family is a household full of individuals, not some neat, packaged unit where everything functions according to pre-defined rules.

The story unfolds in a way that keeps the reader engaged but also waiting for more.  It was clear, from early in the narrative, that some tragedy had befallen one of Rachel’s sons, Petroc, at a young age.  But it is not until the very end that we find out the exact circumstances of his death.  Gale himself had experienced such a loss, and is well qualified to show the effect this may have on a family.

I bought the latest Patrick Gale book from Liskeard’s local bookshop when I last visited my aunt.  I am looking forward to reading it, after this.

28 May 2016: Re-read this book, having recommended it for our book group, where it scored 74%. I speed-read it , but then wishes I hadn’t. There is so much depth to Gale’s  writing.