The Facts of Life by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall

This novel, Gale’s eighth, published in 1996, was written in 1992-3 during a period of personal and professional insecurity, but prompted by encouragement by the famous Australian publisher Carmen Callil who suggested he “stretch his technique with a longer literary form and indulge his fascination with intimate relationships by turning his hand to a family saga. This was the result: three generations of a family working out their loves and recriminations in a strange country house in the Cambridgeshire fens.”

Now, during a time of self-isolation (March 2020) due to the CV19 pandemic I took a short walk with armfuls of rubbish to the re-cycling depot around the corner in Clifton Hill, Melbourne. There I found, to my joy, an old book cabinet overflowing with books of all descriptions and sizes, lots of dictionaries, ‘best-sellers’, wrecked copies of bibles and unfashionable cookbooks, and a copy of this novel which, of course, I had to rescue. Now all his editions have been given a uniform design but this one, from 1996, is curiously coy but suggestive.

Patrick Gale a-la-rondeThe ‘strange house’ on the cover, and central to the book, is based on A La Ronde, a 16-sided house located near Lympstone, Exmouth, Devon, England, and in the ownership of the National Trust. The house was built for two spinster cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter in 1796 and passed down only through the women of the family.

Yes, Patrick Gale is a master of intimate relationships and the story of the marriage between a German evacuee Edward Pepper, a composer, and his doctor, Sally Banks, is rich in character and incident, including a kind murder. The first half of the novel is about their life together, but the story, over three generations, skips the middle one and continues with Edward’s grandchildren; his daughter, Miriam has given up her hippy lifestyle, having given birth to two children, Jamie, and Alison, fathers unknown, and seemingly incongruously married an accountant. Jamie works successfully in insurance and Alison is an editor at a prestigious literary agency.

The second half opens with a detailed and almost shocking description of a feature of Jamie’s life: uninhibited anonymous sex which firmly sets the action towards the centre of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Again Gale fills their lives with incident and detail and characters clearly and intricately drawn. Sam, a rough and sexually ambiguous young man with an unsettling honesty and plain-speaking seriousness is one of Gale’s most effective creations. Sam rescues Alison from an attempted rape and provides Jamie with a reason to change his life; in fact Sam changes both their lives.

Edward grows into a celebrated composer and like most men of his age is solidified in his thinking of years before, so much so that when reminded of his past missteps appears to blame the times, rather than himself, for any insult or harm caused; but he too is affected by Sam’s view of himself and how things should be.

This novel is indeed a family saga, with all the joys and triumphs, jealousies and tragedies that make up family life and peopled with characters whose romanticism Gale so cleverly pricks, encourages, and celebrates.

The book is dedicated to Tom Wakefield (1935-1997) a British novelist and short story writer, a friend of Gale’s and a co-contributor to a trio of novellas, Secrete Lives (1991), to which Gale also contributed a novella called Caesar’s Wife, now seriously hard to find.

You can buy the kindle and paperback editions of The Facts of Life here.

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