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.

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.

Rough Music by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall and plays the cello, modern and baroque.

I first read this book decades ago and then in 2016 I discovered Patrick Gale again with Notes from an Exhibition (2007) and have remained a fan.

Rough Music (2000), like several of Gale’s novels, has a double narrative, same characters, same location, different times.

Julian a small boy, son of simple parents John and Frances, is taken on an idyllic beachside holiday in Cornwall with those parents, John and Francis. The widower, Bill, a writer, and child, Skip, of John’s sister arrive from America and cause passions and the status quo to collide.

Decades later, Julian is a grown man, a successful bookshop owner, and he returns to Cornwall for a holiday with his now ageing parents; his mother with early onset dementia, to the same beach and even, possibly, to the same house. The catalyst of drama and entertainment is that he has been having an affaire with his brother-in-law, Sandy, which began on the evening of Sandy’s buck’s party and has continued through Sandy’s years of happy marriage and the birth of his two sons to Julian’s sister, Poppy, and right up to the action of the story. No one, not Poppy or his parents, know about this. While on this holiday he meets Roly, an artist and drop-out, and he can see a possible exit from this family deception if only he can orchestrate it in time.

Some of the names of these characters change between narratives so don’t be put off by this. All will be revealed.

Each story is told in alternating chapters rendering the climax of both in close proximity to each other. A double whammy for the reader.

Gale is at his best with family relationships and spends time painting them in all their complex layers of expectation, disappointment, and flowering moments of joy. He is a wise writer, or perhaps just acutely observant.

Family life:

The only real difference was children. He had never appreciated until now how much emotional clamour, interference almost, the presence of children set up, saving a relationship from listening to itself.

How children can get in the way:

‘Ma.’ ‘What?’ ‘Leave the door open this time.’ The open door was sobering, like having a dressing-gowned child bearing mutely indignant witness from the room’s corner.

Ageing:

It was as though the only acceptable way to face old age was in a spirit of glassy contemplation and composure, to become a fund of quaint old stories (so long as one did not repeat them too often), a calm old lap on which babies might be placed and an undemanding extra presence at a dining table.

Self awareness:

Perhaps John had been right and her surliness was simply muffled sorrow.

…flirting was a kind of knife sharpening for marriage.

And humour:

Tell me what you’re thinking. Trust me. I’m a novelist.

Sometimes while reading one can feel a ‘little jump’: when you read something that can chip ever so slightly at your suspension of disbelief but for the sake of the story, and your own enjoyment, you accept it, go with it. I think we readers do this a lot. It’s only after you put the book down, days or weeks later or when you’re telling someone about the book, that you may realise that, yes, that something doesn’t quite gel, some plot point or character trait doesn’t quite fit with what has been set up for us to accept. Don’t let this colour your view of the work or the writer adversely. It is caused, I believe, by us readers assuming that the universe of the book is exactly the universe of the reader; but this may not be the case. Of course, some books are written in a universe completely alien to the reader, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings for example, but most books we assume are written in our own universe. As readers we will give ourselves far more enjoyment and commitment if we let the story be what it is and not what we might want it to be, even down to the small details of the narrative and characters.

If you know and like Gale’s work you have probably read this, if not then this, along with A Perfectly Good Man (2012), two of his best, are a good way to begin your Gale adventure.

I continue my quest to read and write about all of Gale’s work and having surmised that it is only during the winter that he writes, in the spring and summer he is far too busy (festivals, garden, cello, cooking …) these seasons give me time to catch up. He is so prolific: two books every three years on average. His last Take Nothing With You came out in 2018; I’m expecting a new one next year. No pressure Patrick!

You can buy the book in various formats here.

 

 

Take Nothing with You by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall and plays the cello, modern and baroque.

Having read a few of the 19 volumes written by Gale, A Sweet Obscurity, A Place Called Winter, The Aerodynamics of Pork, Ease, Notes from an Exhibition, A Perfectly Good Man, one thing stands out: he’s very good at self-discovery; by that I mean, his protagonists cope with discovering who they are. In this latest, Take Nothing With You he does it again. This is a coming-of-age story.

Actually it is two stories about the same person: Eustace as a pre-teen discovering his love of the cello and boys, and coping with his parents; and Eustace as a fifty-something coping with thyroid cancer, mortality, and an on-line, but serious, love affair with a British soldier in the Middle East who he’s about to meet face-to-face i.e., kiss, for the first time.

Although told in the third person but from the point of view of Eustace, the narrator is so close to our hero, think of him as an imp sitting on Eustace’s shoulder, knowing, seeing, but not understanding everything – just like a 10 year old. James Wood, literary critic for The New Yorker since 2007, calls this ‘close writing’, or if you prefer a more literary moniker, ‘free indirect discourse’. I prefer Wood’s term as it creates the idea that the third-person narrator could very easily slip into the first-person narrator, so close are they. Fellow British novelist Edward St-Aubyn in his quintet, which has become known as The Patrick Melrose Novels (1992-2012), uses such a technique for all of his major characters; it’s like the narrator-imp jumps from shoulder to shoulder using the language and tropes of each individual, depending on which shoulder he sits. In Take Nothing With You (2018, Gale’s 16th novel) this close writing enables Gale to create a narrative of the boy’s parents and their disintegrating marriage, including his mother’s secret, that Eustace is unaware of. This dramatic irony is what makes Eustace’s small-town family life, in Weston-super-Mare, a seaside holiday town in North Somerset, so interesting. We readers know more than he does.

By the way, his mother’s secret (no spoilers here) is never mentioned, but you know it because Gale lets you know it.

As an adult Eustace is more at ease with himself and the world, and although his thyroid cancer and its treatment are troubling, his new, as yet, unconsummated romance gives him hope and joy. The world is no longer a mystery to him, as it was when he was young, and he is sanguine about his future; but he hasn’t told Theo, the soldier, about his cancer as he doesn’t want to sour his only communication with him: their daily Skype calls. In this older Eustace narrative the action takes place mostly in the lead-lined hospital room where he goes for radio-therapy treatment and is advised, because of the radiation, that anything he takes with him has to be disposed of, hence he is told to ‘take nothing with you.’

The narrative never follows Theo which makes him less of a character and more of a metaphor for hope. But its Eustace’s hope and Eustace is who we care about.

For a lonely, quiet, and sensitive boy discovering a passion for the cello is heart-warming. Gale plays and performs on the cello himself and if you are interested in music, or a player of any instrument yourself, these passages are a delight. His passion is palpable and these scenes often blurred my vision.

Gale is allergic to clichés; in fact, I get the impression that he tries to invent clichés and then vows never to use them again. He is also a word-smith and sometimes his word choice takes you by surprise: ‘…heedlessly in love’ is almost a story in itself with a beginning, middle, and end.

Gale’s characters have meat on their bones and ideas in their heads. They are people you love, loath, want to see triumph, or fall on their arse.

Any Gale book is highly recommended.

You can buy the eBook and other editions here.

And here is Patrick Gale talking about Take Nothing With You and the three books that influenced it.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

\

 

A Sweet Obscurity by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall with his husband farmer. They raise barley and beef. He plays the cello in a string trio, is chair of the Endellion Summer Music Festival, and loves gardening, dogs and nature.

Finally, on page 47, the complicated filial relationships of the four main characters, are explained. Several readings of the first three chapters doesn’t make them clearer, and the introduction of another family with a similar structure only confused matters even more. (I even cheated at the blurb on the back cover) It’s never clear to readers, and neither should it be, who makes these structural decisions, writer or editor, but waiting ’till page 47 is too long. Many readers would’ve given up; I nearly did, but I’m glad I persevered.

A common, and probably over-used, novelistic structure is a brief introduction followed by a major plot point – a birth, death, a prodigal brother, an earthquake – and then the back stories to fill in the gaps; and finally, the consequences that lead to a climax (another plot point or two) and finale. Gale doesn’t really abandon this structure, he stretches it and the long wait for the first plot point is ameliorated by his interesting characters and relationships.

Dido is a 9-year-old girl going on 25. Her upbringing is shared by her aunt, Eliza, Giles, Eliza’s estranged husband, and Julia, Giles’ girlfriend. All three are involved in music: Giles is an impossibly handsome counter-tenor, Julia works for the agency that handles his career, and Eliza is a musicologist who is struggling to complete her doctorate on the Elizabethan madrigalic composer, Trevescan. Dido’s single mother, Hannah, Eliza’s older sister, a wayward but determined woman died in a mountaineering accident well before the action begins. Dido’s father is unknown. They all have eccentricities of dress, self-regard, expectations, failings, and sexual proclivities; they are all in the beginnings, middles or ends of their warm, messy relationships, or planning, or foreseeing new ones; but are all basically good people trying to get along in the world as best they can. A trip to Cornwall, the discovery of a ‘lost’ madrigal, and a broccoli farmer change everything. As a reader, you want them all to find what they are looking for. They deserve to be happy.

Then finally, Gale drops in the first plot point. It isn’t another character, or an event, or an action; it’s a piece of information, something only some of them know. He could’ve plopped it down near the beginning but he saves it for near the end; and once it has hit you between the eyes – it’s something I can guarantee you would never guess – a few little more bombshells are dropped and the webby entanglements of all their lives re-arrange themselves (probably to begin a new cacophony of bumpy attachments); but Gale leaves these wonderful people at the moment of most contentment, or, at least, the promise of contentment, and the reader closes the book with great satisfaction.

The book doesn’t stop there. There is an interview with Gale, and a little essay by Gale himself about the writing of the book: it’s his only work to date based on a dream.

You can buy the eBook here.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

patrick_gale_pic2
British writer, Patrick Gale

This is a very different book, Gale’s latest, from his other work which have usually been an insular look at a group of people in a localised area, usually a small Cornish community. A Place Called Winter is epic in its geography, historic in its time and language, and romantic in its tone. If you had to write a précis of this book it would read something like a historical romance, complete with abandonment of wife and family, a journey across the ocean to a strange and inhospitable land, the finding of love in the most unlikely place, a world war, murder, insanity, tragedy, and a villain of truly despicable proportions, but Gale avoids all the possible clichés that would otherwise render such a story fit only for the sensational shelves of suburban bookshops patronised by retired ladies.

“I didn’t decide, ‘Now for an historical novel!’ Rather I found myself more and more possessed by the material suggested by the fragments of my great-grandfather’s story,” and Gale has been reported many times as saying that for the purposes of fiction, and to account for surprising decisions from his ancestor’s known but sketchy life, he ‘turned’ his great-grandfather gay. This is not surprising for Gale readers, as Gale, an out gay man, writes often and well about sexuality. However “The great challenge in this novel was to write about sexuality while inhabiting the head of a man who realistically would not have had anything like the psycho-sexual vocabulary we take for granted now.” Indeed, in his first homosexual experience, which he, Harry Cane, subconsciously seeks out under the guise of a remedy for his stuttering from a handsome, but opportunistic actor and speech therapist, says, when it is obvious what is going to happen and without any stutter at all, “I have absolutely no idea what to do.”

Once his affair is discovered by a kind but firm brother he is forced to avoid a family scandal and possible imprisonment, and flees to the wild cold west of Canada where he is befriended, then abused, but finally set up by a land agent next to a shy and reclusive brother and sister pair, there for their own reasons of displacement. It is here, near a place called Winter, that he discovers what life, love, sacrifice and family really mean. Plot points of self-realization, murder and reunion are described in unsentimental terms and even the climatic act of …. No; no spoilers here.

For all of Gale’s extolling his attention “on the psychology and emotional life” of his characters I found A Place Called Winter, although enjoyable and sustaining, not as rewarding as his other works that focused on a domestic band of rural characters dealing with each other, and more importantly, themselves. The Cornish landscape, both emotional and geographic, he knows well and writes about it with, insight, force and understanding, while such considerations in A Place Called Winter are a little overshadowed by the grandeur of the plot. However, there is a lot to gain from this book; it’s probably the most commercial of his works and one that will gain him a new and, hopefully, loyal readership. He’s prolific: this is his 17th work and I eagerly look forward to what next he has to offer.

Ease by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer, Patrick Gale

I’m not a recipe-bound cook. I like recipe books for ideas not instructions. Generally due to this approach I produce eatable, sometimes interesting, but usually unmemorable dishes. However, sometimes I even amaze myself: my first soufflé was a triumph and I basked in my own pride, and praise from others. Usually, though, when I attempt a former triumph a second time, it is a disaster: my second soufflé was more like a biscuit.

I have seen evidence of this second-time-failure phenomenon in other human endeavours, and not just mine, but Patrick Gale’s second novel of 17, Ease (1985), is not one of them.

His first The Aerodynamics of Pork (1985) was a joy to read but Ease surpasses it: its simpler, clearer, better structured, and philosophically more interesting.

Domina (Dom, Min, Mina) Tey is a successful playwright, who lives with her long-time partner – too long to be a boyfriend, but not legal enough to be a husband – Randolf Herskewitz, (Ran, Rand, Randy – Gale loves to play with names). He’s a writer too, although an academic one, more truth-as-wonder than Domina’s truth-as-reality.

Min writes plays about “menopausal lecturers and novelists” for “the discerning Guardian-reading, professional-oblique-arty masses”, which Des (Desiree), her agent, loves and can sell, but Min is worried she’s getting bored, and therefore boring.

Min leaves Randy and leaves behind the loveliest ‘I’m leaving you/not leaving you’ note you have ever read: “I won’t be in for dinner for a few weeks but the freezer is well stocked,’ it begins. She goes to “visit herself” and “secrecy of whereabouts vital to success of spiritual growth” and she signs “Apologetic affec. Mxxxxxxx.”

She moves to “a top-floor bedsit by Queensway, with no view, in a house full of odd little men and an old-bag downstairs who used to be a mortician.” One of these little men is Thierry, a young, French, gorgeous, promiscuous, and very successful, homosexual who takes her on one of his sauna-searching escapades; another is Quintus, a young, sweet, naïve history student who is trying also to find himself but has just found God, well, not God really, more a church; and not just any church, the Greek Orthodox Church. He captures Min’s curiosity and she captures a few other little things of his as well. I won’t go on; no spoilers here, and there’s quite a lot I could spoil, but no.

No-one knows how this thing we call human life started, if only by a bolt of lightning in a pool of primordial ooze, but start it did, with or without a creative hand. It sounds unlikely but it only had to happen once in a multi-squillion or so years. Anyway, stuff happens and us humans have many diverting, equally unlikely, annoying, and definite views on how we cause or are affected by such stuff and what we then need to feel or do; but if you are of the philosophical bent of our protagonist, Min, (and Mr. Gale, I suspect) you may come away from reading this book with a more peaceful, uncluttered, and sanguine view of us, allowing you to get on with life, like washing the dishes, walking the dog, loving, reading and /or writing books.

Patrick Gale is a British novelist whose ebook editions of his many novels are published in the US by Early Bird Books, and marketed by Open Road Media.

The Aerodynamics of Pork by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer, Patrick Gale

To begin a book review in a recent edition of The New Yorker (April 25, 2016), James Woods asserts that if there is such a thing as ‘late style’ in classical music then there must be such a thing in contemporary fiction; and then he describes what it might look like in the late works of Muriel Spark, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Edna O’Brien. He’s right, of course, but then there must be such a thing as ‘early style’; and having read, and blogged about, two later works of Patrick Gale, Notes from an Exhibition (2007) and A Perfectly Good Man (2012) this one, The Aerodynamics of Pork his debut novel from 1985, is a perfect example of such an ‘early style.

There are no exquisite sentences nor the confident rearrangement of narrative time that characterise Gale’s later work. You can sense that Gale is testing the waters with this one; not just testing his own talent but flexing his literary muscles really, paving the way for more complex, more personal, and more adventurous writing.

Gale starts chapters and you find yourself in a maze. This isn’t as disturbing as it may seem; it just ups your trust in the writer a notch or two. (So you think, “This better be worth it”) But, as in a maze, you gradually find youself making sense of where you are, and who people are, their friends and situations and before you know it you find youself out of the maze – it’s only page three and you meet a before-mentioned character, say, from page one – and suddenly you’re into a plot. Gale allows the reader to do some of the work, to test assumptions and make predictions based on the information he gives you without spelling everything out which always halts the flow causing the narrative to plod rather than skip. Gale’s plots always skip.

It remains popular with the reading public even though Gale has somewhat dismissed it as over-written and under edited; I see it more as one of the work’s two narratives working better than the other.

Seth Peake, 15 going on 35, a musical prodigy and an extremely well-adjusted gay school-boy, blossoms artistically and romantically during a summer music festival; and a police inspector, Maude Faithe, a lesbian who’s let her sexuality slip in importance in recent years, discovers it again during her investigation into a bizarre series of burglaries of the homes of astrologists and popular fortune tellers and their soon to be announced prophecy of global importance. Seth is certainly ‘out’ while Mo is definitely ‘in’; as she is about her profession: she’s secretive of her sexuality among her work-collegues, but even more so about her job to potential friends and especially to potential lovers.

Seth’s narrative is more satisfying if only for the characters of his mother and sister; the former a progressive thinker but still a worrier, and the latter, an underachiever who finally understands that her lack of interest in sex is her own affair and her anxiety is solely due to her younger brother’s success at it even if he is underage.

The title is intriguing and there are cute little references to ‘pig’ and ‘piglets’ as euphemisms for members of the constabulary, although more benign than one might expect; and subtle inferences to the adynaton, ‘if pigs could fly.’ It would be a mistake to read too much into this; a memorable title need not be anything but a memorable title; but, of course, it means whatever you think it means.

If you are new to Patrick Gale why not start with this one, just like he did.

This and other Patrick Gale titles are being released in the US as e-editions through Open Road Media and you can find this title here.

http://www.openroadmedia.com/ebook/the-aerodynamics-of-pork

You can also find the book on Open Road Media’s affiliated sites:

Amazon:
https://www.amazon.com/Aerodynamics-Pork-Novel-Patrick-Gale-ebook/dp/B01FRQEVBK?ie=UTF8&SubscriptionId=AKIAIWK3GU7N4Y5GTA6Q&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=B01FRQEVBK&linkCode=xm2&tag=httpwwwopen01-20

Barnes & Noble:
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-aerodynamics-of-pork-patrick-gale/1000208127?ean=9781504037624

Goodreads:
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30227509-the-aerodynamics-of-pork

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

A Perfectly Good Man Cover Pic

In 1937 J. B. Priestley was – if not the first then one of the first – writers to use time as a plot point. His play Time and the Conways tells of the decline of a monied Yorkshire family between the wars. Act one is set in 1919 at the birthday party of one of the daughters; act two is set on the same night but in 1937 and we see how far the family and all its members have fallen; and act three continues from act one and we see all the misjudged decisions, wrong turnings, and false expectations that caused it all. It is a tragedy, not just of a family but of Britain as she unwittingly is drawn into war, a war that Priestly predicted; but because the audience knows what happens they are spared any melodramatic sentimentality at the Conway’s future and, instead, are left with the truly tragic knowledge that it is all their own fault, therefore teaching us that our future is all our own fault. Damn it!

By the end of the first chapter of Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man I was gasping at what I had just witnessed, as our hero, the perfectly good man, an Anglican vicar, Father Barnaby Johnson, had just witnessed and could do nothing to stop: a suicide in broad daylight at a kitchen table. Time jumps back twenty years for chapter two and by its end I was misty-eyed at a lonely farm girl who almost became a matinee spinster, and at her sudden and unexpected happiness that she grabbed with her heart and both hands, despite her mother’s selfish interference and her own self-acceptance of a lonely life; so that when she saw Barnaby, finally, and they kissed and kissed again I’m sure I heard an orchestra belting out a soppy Korngold score like anything starring Joan Fontain and Lawrence Olivier: emotional, yes, but not sentimental; there’s no time for that as the next chapter jumps forty years into the future with Barnaby at 60. We know the consequences of everything they see and do. As with Priestley’s time plays Gale reveals outcomes before their gestation which not only spares us sentimentality and underlines the folly of mankind but also provides the reader with a few delicious “Oh yes, of course!” moments. I love those little moments.

Gale’s clever narrative, not only doesn’t follow the linear life of Barnaby Johnson, but rather his life is painted not by what he does but by what effect he has on the people around him: Dorothy, his wife; Lenny, his young, lapsed parishioner; Carrie, his daughter; Phuc (Careful! It’s rhymes with look), his adopted Vietnamese son; Modest, an interfering, totally unpleasant and obese man, to whom Barnaby shows nothing but kindness; James, his gay uncle; and Nuala, his onetime Australian lover. We get to know Barnaby Johnson through his reflection in the lives of these Cornish people. Be assured that I have left out some important information in my descriptions of these characters: I don’t believe in spoilers.

It’s set in Cornwall and in the little parishes north of Penzance, the same location of the previous Gale novel I read and blogged about; and incidentally two characters from that book, Notes from an Exhibition (see my previous post) make an appearance in this one. A neat synchronicity but only because I read these two back to back.

He has a way with the nuanced phrase …”the sisterly happiness she felt for him was borne up on little upwells or erotic regret …  she could smell the disappointment of her, a passing sourness, as of stale sweat trapped in a dress sleeve … In a priestly way – all cheekbones and fine feeling – he was handsome, she considered … And there she was in his maths class like a princess sent to a rural comprehensive to learn humility… Even now they weren’t exactly alone because her parents were standing in the porch, like an advertisement for mortgages…she simply preferred to keep her feelings private and as reassuringly compartmentalized as the meticulously size-sorted screws in the trays of her tool box …”

These gems give you little jolts of joy, like finding a $20 note in a pair of jeans you haven’t worn for a while.

Notes from an Exhibition, along with A Perfectly Good Man are now available as ebooks and you can find them here.

Since my literary heroes (at the moment), Colm Tóibín, Tim Winton, and Damon Galgut are not very prolific I’m happy to add Patrick Gale to the list so now I have his whole body of work to explore. I hope you will too.