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.