Tree Surgery for Beginners by Patrick Gale

British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall

This is a story about Lawrence, a tree surgeon and a man at the mercy of his emotions and those that love him. In a bout of jealousy he shoves his wife, Bonnie, and she falls and does far more damage than he ever intended. She leaves him and takes their daughter, Lucy, with her. She not only leaves, she disappears. Coincidentally, the charred and unidentifiable remains of a female is found in a shallow grave near his house the next day and he is implicated, jailed, and tried by media as the (very) possible murderer.

This is the entry into Lawrence’s family: his mother, Dora, his father-in-law, Charlie, and his ‘batchelor’ uncle Darius. These characters are well drawn in true Patrick Gale fashion; he is a master not only of character-building but also of character-differentiation.

What impresses me about Gale is his succinct strokes of the novelistic brush: he describes Bonnie’s inexperienced seduction of Lawrence as ” … inquisitive as a Brownie, insistent as a nurse.” How clear!

We learn of everyone’s back story and the velcro-ed relationships that take us up to Lawrence’s incarceration. Bonnie and Lucy, having ‘disappeared’ to Paris with the cause of Lawrence’s jealousy, Craig, and so know nothing of the legal and media furor that enveloped her husband, return and Lawrence is released although his career, business, and demeanour are all smashed.

The bridge-expert, Darius, takes Lawrence on a transAtlantic card-playing cruise to try to restore the poor man’s self-confidence. The characters he, and us, meet are also expertly drawn; people that he wouldn’t usually come into contact with crowd around him and try as he might to distance himself from ‘these people’ they sustain him. He falls in love with the on-board entertainer, Lala, who everybody believes, and as her publicity infers, was born a man. This is handled with great subtlety, skill, and truth.

Then in Chapter 20 while on a stopover on the Caribbean island of St Martin, the plot goes off the rails. A tiger, another (unclear) death, a murder explained, a disappearance, an even more unlikely marriage, and a long-lost twin.

Keeping the reader’s suspension of disbelief* in tact is the writer’s main aim; losing the writer the greatest sin. Gale lost me with the fate of Lala and her later … no more spoilers here.

What happened in this book is that Gale let the reader fade from his novelistic decision making. I had to go back and re-read sections to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I shouldn’t have to do this. I still enjoyed the writing, but I felt this book needed another draft. When something ultra-surprising happens – and it’s my belief that if the reader is surprised the author probably was too – the writer has to overcome the disbelief of such a surprise and take the reader along – not leave them behind; take the time to describe the detail. Detail, afterall, is the hallmark of novelistic belief. Some of the twists and coincidences in this novel from 1998 were hurried and veracity lost.

Nevertheless, I remain a Gale fan and will continue on my quest to read all his work; eleven so far, nine more to go; some I want to re-read. He also has a new novel coming out this year, Mother’s Boy.

*The concept that to become emotionally involved in a narrative, audiences must react as if the characters are real and the events are happening now, even though they know it is ‘only a story’. In other words, you know you’re sitting in your reading chair by the window in your living room, all of which is real, but you can also engage emotionally, believe, the characters and setting of the fiction, which isn’t real, that you happen to be reading. This is exactly what happens in the theatre. The disbelief is that what you are reading is not real, because you are sitting in your reading chair at home – that is real; you need to suspend this disbelief in order to become engaged with the book, i.e., emotionally believe it. And this is exactly what happens with religion.

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