Now we come to a very particular pile of books which I read during 2020. Yes, I’ve already covered the novels I’ve read in a previous post but I also devoured no less than twelve titles by the same author namely Patrick Gale. For those who may not know Patrick, lets take a look at the man himself first. Born on the Isle of Wight in 1962 Patrick spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, where his father was governor. Most of Patrick’s youth was spent living in Winchester, but he graduated in English from New College, Oxford in 1983. Patrick now lives on a farm near Land’s End, Cornwall with his partner, sculptor Aiden Hicks. As a passionate gardener, cook, and cellist Patrick also makes time to chair the North Cornwall Book Festival each October. I first encountered Patrick as the author of the Emmy Award winning TV mini-series Man in an Orange Shirt which was first broadcast in the summer of 2017. I resolved to read some of his work but life interfered for a couple of years and the t0-be-read pile just kept growing until I saw the author in conversation with my good friend Mary Beard. Her Front Row Late, TV series had morphed into Lockdown Culture and we saw Mary in remote conversation with several cultural icons of which Patrick Gale was one. I already had one of his books in that afore mentioned pile and so I started to read A Place Called Winter.
Over subsequent months I read many of Patrick’s works and have yet to read one that I have not loved from beginning to end. It would be crazy to think that I could write a dozen or so full book reviews in one blog post so I will openly cheat by giving you book blurbs for some, with short comments for all of them from me.
1) I think that the reason I began with A Place Called Winter is that it had been shortlisted for the Costa prize soon after publication in 2015. This book sang to me. Everything that I look for in a novel was there and as such it has set a benchmark for my own writing aspirations. This is a great love story inhabited by wonderful characters who develop real relationships in gloriously detailed settings. I was also pleased to see that just like other gay writers whom I truly admire, this author had written strong female characters into the tale. I am so pleased that as I read Patrick’s other works I found that this was a positive thread through all of them.
A privileged elder son, and stammeringly shy, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair do little to shake the foundations of his muted existence – until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest cost him everything.
Forced to abandon his wife and child, Harry signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies. Remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. And yet it is here, isolated in a seemingly harsh landscape, under the threat of war, madness and an evil man of undeniable magnetism that the fight for survival will reveal in Harry an inner strength and capacity for love beyond anything he has ever known before.
In this exquisite journey of self-discovery, loosely based on a real life family mystery, Patrick Gale has created an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love.
2) My next foray into Patrick’s work was his most recent book, the 2018 Take Nothing With You which became his fourth Sunday Times Best Seller. This book resonated with so much from my own past with a previous long term partner who had been an organ scholar at Bristol’s Clifton College. Music plays a really important part in the author’s life and so it is a recurring theme in many of his books.
Take Nothing With You is a sad-funny comedy of resilience and survival. Fifty-something Eustace, a gay Londoner of leisure, realises in the same week that he has fallen hopelessly in love with a man he has yet to meet in the flesh, and that he has cancer of the thyroid. While being given radioactive iodine therapy, which involves spending a little over 24 hours in a lead-lined hospital suite wearing only disposable clothes and with no possessions he doesn’t mind leaving behind, he listens to hour on hour of cello music recorded for him by his best mate, Naomi. This sets his memories circling back to the 1970s and his eccentric boyhood and adolescence in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare, and how his life was transfigured and his family’s stability shattered, by the decision to attend a recital by the glamorous cellist, Carla Gold.
3) Notes from an Exhibition (2007) was my next read and I have already posted a review about this novel in July 2019. I loved the way each chapter was indeed curated like the pictures in an art exhibition, with different character points of view in many of them. A huge attraction for me was the beautiful Cornish setting for much of the story.
When troubled artist Rachel Kelly dies raving in her attic studio in Penzance, her saintly husband and adult children have more than the usual mess to clear up. She leaves behind her paintings of genius – but she leaves also a legacy of secrets and emotional damage it will take months to unravel.
Patrick Gale’s novel is the story of a woman he has called “my most frightening mother to date”. She’s a genius, a loving wife and parent, a faithful friend but she’s also tormented by bi-polar disorder and driven by an artistic compulsion – often barely distinguishable from her mental illness – to damage all who try to love and protect her.
Notes from an Exhibition takes its title from the information cards displayed beside works of art in a gallery or museum. Each chapter in the novel begins with a different example, all of them referring Kelly’s art or possessions. We never see examples of her work but it is described in detail and a cumulative effect of the novel is the reader’s sense that they are walking around a retrospective of her art.
Each chapter reflects in some way the object or art work that the curatorial voice describes at its outset, sometimes directly, sometimes in some enigmatic way. There’s a sense that the curator’s notes give us the official version, the art gives us another and the piece of narrative that follows yet another. The messy, human truth lies somewhere in between all three.
Roughly half of the chapters are told from Rachel’s viewpoint and these form the novel’s backbone, portraying key episodes in her life that take us to Penzance , to New York and to Toronto , from an idyllic afternoon on a Cornish beach to a nightmarish spell on a psychiatric ward. Interleaved with her story, however, are the stories of her sister, her husband and her four children, each of them giving a different perspective on this extraordinary woman, each of them seen both in youth and in adulthood.
What emerges is the intensely dramatic and complex history of one woman and her almost inhuman dedication to art but also a moving portrait of her marriage to a longsuffering Quaker English teacher and a study of the way her ambiguous gifts wreck emotional havoc within her family even after her death.
Drawing on the West Cornish settings Patrick Gale knows so well, it will please fans of his earlier Cornish novel, Rough Music, not merely in its depiction of a troubled family but in the exciting way it leads its reader to play detective with the assortment of narrative evidence laid before them.
4) The quality of that novel and the mention of it following in the wake of an earlier Cornish tale then led me to read Rough Music (2000). Again the trope about growing up gay in a very straight world resonated deeply for me, as did the wonderful Cornish setting since this had also formed the backdrop of what I think of as my own “coming out years”.
For his fortieth birthday, a gay bookseller is given a holiday in a seaside cottage in North Cornwall. He takes his parents, who need the break because the mother has early onset Alzheimers, his nephews and his married lover, who just happens to be his brother-in-law.
Meanwhile, back in 1968, the forty-something governor of Wandsworth Prison also takes his wife and small boy on holiday to Cornwall full of good intentions about the quality time he intends to enjoy with them.
But then his charismatic American brother-in-law shows up with his bolshie tomboy daughter and there’s a break-out at the prison and everything goes horribly awry. As the two holidays fall apart in a welter of truth telling and bad behaviour, the stories unfold around one another, the novel builds to a double climax and we come to understand that we are seeing the same family at two different points in its history.
But what terrible thing happened back in the sixties to make them the way they are in the present? Deeply personal, Patrick’s most overtly autobiographical novel to date, Rough Music’s unsparing portrayal of the painful realities of being a gay child (at whatever age), of unrequited married love, of losing one’s mind, made this the novel with which he has found thousands of new readers.
After having devoured these four wonderful novels I then decided to do something I’d not done for many years. I definitely wanted more of this author’s work, but I also wanted to track his journey as a writer and so I started to read all of his published books in chronological order of publication. Not wanting to add several thousand more words to this blog post I am going to simply list the next eight works that I read, with a very brief word on each of them apart from the last one which has left me reeling and full of emotion about a period from my own past.
5) The Aerodynamics of Pork (1985) was Patrick’s first novel and was written as a way of subverting the recently launched Betty Trask prize, which was then solely for romantic fiction. The blurb on The author’s own website describes the book as:
Confident and energetic as novels can only be when the writer has no sense of a public, The Aerodynamics of Pork is now often dismissed by its author as seeming overwritten and under-edited but it remains a cult favourite with his following.
I loved it but as someone who views his own first novel in exactly the same way, I wonder if he cringes about it as much as I do when I read mine?
6) Ease (1985) was the second novel but published in the same year. I have to say that we are dragged through the narrative at a rate of knots but as a collection of varied character studies this book is a great read.
7) Kansas in August (1987) The title is not the setting for this story but is of course a musical reference which if you are a gay man of a certain age, you will already be hearing inside your head! This was the last of Patrick’s so called Bayswater novels and revolves around the musical-obsessed Hilary Metcalfe who is abandoned by his lover Rufus on his birthday. Hilary gets drunk and on the way home he discovers a baby which he brings back to his flat above a corner shop – as you do! I found the whole thing very poignant and very funny.
8) Facing the Tank (1988) I am a great fan of stories set in chintzy Middle England and this one is a hilarious nod to those. I suspect the fictional cathedral city of Barrowcester is a reflection of Patrick’s formative years in Winchester and it is all the richer for that.
9) Little Bits of Baby (1989) This is an unashamedly romantic novel but at the same time full of the wit and dark humour that I am coming to like so much in Patrick’s writing. As for the central character Robin, I just wanted to give him a huge hug!
10) The Cat Sanctuary (1990) after facing some criticism over the predominance of gay male characters in previous novels, in this tale Patrick deftly transports us back to Cornwall and drops us into a strongly matriarchal community. This patchwork quilt of characters and their relationships is at least as well written as any previous ones and I for one found the story telling both moving and beautiful.
If the next story is anything to go by then Patrick is a consummate writer of the short story form and I really wish it were a form both encouraged and supported by more publishers.
11) Caesar’s Wife (1991) At first this story confused me because it was published under the title Secret Lives along with novels by two friends of his. It has however been reissued in 2018 in the volume Three Decades of Stories along with many other short works of his that I am now impatient to read. Caesar’s Wife is a well structured tapestry of rich characters who prove to us that the course of true love never does run easily.
Okay we have come to the last novel of Patrick’s which I read last year. if there is a novel which marks the authors coming of age in writing then this is the one for me. I found everything before this to be superbly well crafted, but this is the one which on a personal level spoke to me most loudly and clearly.
12) The Facts of Life (1995) was an astonishingly moving tale especially in the latter part where it is set so deeply in the AIDS crisis of the 80’s. As someone who lived through that wholly unforgettable time and watched friends and lovers dying around me – even in my arms, it resonated deeply. I found myself at various points either unable to stop reading, or at other times having to stop and close the book because it had moved me so much. I recognised in the story telling, the same sense of survivors guilt that I have lived with for all these years. For me the pain was eased with the onset of treatments which now mean that so many people can live long and healthy lives with the virus. I am sure that I am not the only gay man in the current crisis who has wondered why, if we can develop so many Covid vaccines in less than a year, why are we still waiting after 40 years for an effective HIV vaccine? I will leave that question out there and return to this wonderful book.
Edward Pepper is an exile, saved from Nazi Germany in the Kindertransport as a child, ostracised in England as a German Jew, then cut off still further by developing TB. He is saved, in every sense, by Sally, the doctor who becomes his wife.
Thanks to their unmarried benefactors, they set up home in The Roundel, an octagonal house always inherited by women, where she supports him as he struggles to make a living as a composer. But Sally’s strength of character cannot protect him from his past or from the predatory interest of Myra Toye, an actress he encounters while working at a film studio.
Years later Edward’s grandson and granddaughter work out a drama of their own when he falls in love and develops AIDS in one fell swoop and she feels compelled to rebuild her life around the precious years that remain of his. Patterns repeat themselves with subtle alterations and once again Edward must face the pain of a survivor’s guilt.
Legendary Chatto and Windus editor, Carmen Callil had suggested Patrick could at once 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. Continuing to inhabit the dark areas that seemed to erupt into Gale’s work with The Cat Sanctuary, The Facts of Life is not without humour, but it’s a humour deeply rooted in and enriched by a knowledge of human pain. The Roundel is closely modelled on A La Ronde, an extraordinary house near Exmouth now opened to the public by the National Trust but which Patrick had the good fortune to be shown around when it was still owned by the last of the many female generations to had exclusive use of it.
Until I read The Facts of Life, my hero of the gay literary genre was most definitely Armistead Maupin. Now I have to put Patrick Gale right up there beside him and I am impatient to read the rest of the back catalogue. Of course I hope that there will be more new novels and if Man in an Orange Shirt is anything to go by lets have more TV scripts too! For full details of all of Patrick Gale’s books go to his website at https://galewarning.org/
I hope that these last five blog posts have not just shown you my personal reading habits but have introduced you to some new titles or new authors that you might take a closer look at. Lockdown is still very much with us and my current ‘to-be-read’ pile seems bigger than ever. I will be back with more recommendations but do stay safe and keep reading!