The Cat Sanctuary by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives on a farm in Cornwall and plays the cello,  both baroque and modern. He chairs the North Cornwall Book Festival and is patron of the Penzance LitFest.

This is an early novel, his 6th, from 1990.

It’s about three women in a house.

The narrative is like a favourite aunt’s doily with a little trio of characters in the centre intricately embroided; there are a few men involved but only around the edges, woven in like a lace border, to frame it.

Or it’s a piece of chamber music, intimate, intricate, but allowing each character to the fore, their solo bit, not only to enlighten us about her but also about the others.

Gale’s voice is at an appropriate and un-judgemental distance, sensitive to the humour that can emerge from conflict. He knows the full picture but hones in on specifics, to add colour, backstory, and therefore understanding while stitching the story for us. He’s at his best with family politics.

It inspired an understanding of the complexity and the importance to storytelling of gossip. Gossip: noun,  intimate detail about the people we don’t know. It’s television equivalent is soap opera. Intimate detail about the people we do know is higher art because we know the reasons, motivations, inevitabilities. It’s television equivalent is serial drama. We get to know these three women very well.

In novels, but not in television or film, this is achieved – not only but mostly – by the narrator; knowing what people are thinking, and sometimes the joy of reading about what people are thinking is knowing that what they are thinking is wrong, misplaced, or delusional. This, getting narrative information from what is not written – reading between the lines, is a hallmark of good writing.

Dialogue – in novels, television, and film – like “What’s wrong?”; “Are you OK?”, and “Do you have something to tell me?” are examples of bad writing. They should be completely unnecessary.

Good writers trust their readers to work it out; bad writers don’t trust their readers at all and spell it out.

Gale gives us juicy revelations; makes us doubt what we thought of something/someone; and forces us to do a lot of work (thinking) to assimilate the full complex picture. We are not always conscious of this but it is the major cause for answering the question “What was it like?” with “It was great. I loved it.”

Judith, a successful novelist lives in an isolated Cornish house with her lover, Joanna, a photographer. Judith’s estranged younger sister and a recent, and very sudden, widow, Deborah, comes to stay, to recuperate, reassess, get back on track. Three women in a house, all in a variety of positions on the road to contentment. Not far away lives a widow, Esther, who runs a dishevelled sanctuary for cats. And here is my only minor gripe: the metaphor: cats, women in a house all on the road to safety is very obvious. There was no need, Patrick, to explain it.

Conversations, backstory slotted in with ease, and three men, one in the present, two in the past, all pivotal are woven in with skill.

Here is a small sample of his writing: he’s describing the, now deceased, mother of the sisters, Judith and Deborah.

She had always drunk in company, but after her husband’s sudden death, she ceased what little entertaining she had ever managed and began to hide her bottles like so many lovers in a farce … A small rounded woman,  her mother had appeared on a first encounter like some roly-poly matriarch in a child’s picture book, or a motherly glove puppet – nothing on her mind but baking and sweetness, nothing beneath her skirts but clothespegs and starch. One surreptitious glass too many, however, and her nursery rhyme equilibrium was upset, revealing all manner of spite and grievances to the unready … ‘I hope you realise that we only stayed together because of you graceless bitches,’ was the sort of declaration she would make when nearing the point of nightly collapse.

In my previous post I described my frustration at finding something to read that sparked my interest. I found this one. I read it in a weekend so I’m now in the same predicament. To avoid another collection of wasteful days I’m going straight to another Gale, his latest Take Nothing With You, which I should’ve blogged about already.

So what did I think of The Cat Sanctuary? It was great. I loved it.

You can buy the ebook, and/or read a free sample, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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