Book reviews

A Sweet Obscurity is the second book I’ve read by Patrick Gale after reading A Place Called Winter a few years ago.

The story has several main characters, including Eliza, a single mother to her nine-year old niece Dido. Eliza and Dido had been living in poverty in London after Eliza left her husband Giles for another relationship which hadn’t worked out. Since the separation Dido had been splitting her time between Eliza’s flat and Giles’ luxurious home where he lived with his new girlfriend Julia.

The story started with a shock as Dido found naked photos of herself amongst Giles’ things which had been taken while she was asleep. Giles maintained that the photos were innocent and that he had been thinking about how sweet Dido was in her sleep but this ambiguous event left me feeling suspicious of Giles and generally uneasy about the relationships between all of the characters.

Eliza had suffering from depression and she and Dido were living in poverty so Dido took charge, shaming Giles into giving her money which she used for food for her and Eliza.

Giles and Eliza had initially met as musical students. Giles was a counter-tenor (a male operatic soprano) with a successful career. At the time Eliza had been working towards an academic career but she had been unable to balance her work with Giles and Dido’s needs and had long ago given up on her doctoral research. Eliza’s particular subject was Elizabethan madrigals by a relatively obscure Cornish courtier from the late 1600s.

Giles, Eliza and Julia were individually disfunctional and didn’t fare much better as a family. Giles had had a terrible upbringing and Eliza, who also had family secrets, had been thrust into parenthood after the unexpected death of her sister. Giles, who seemed to mean well, had swept in to rescue Eliza and Dido but as a couple they were unsuited. Dido provided all of the adults with a connection, as well as a reason to live and strive for something better, but the weight of all of their needs overburdened her emotionally.

Eliza’s mother died and she and Dido left London for Cornwall where they landed in St Just, the town where the subject of Eliza’s obscure composer had lived. While in town Eliza joined a local madrigal singing group where she recognised one of their songs as a piece previously unknown to her by the subject of her study.

Eliza and Dido found their place in the St Just community and before long Eliza started a romance with one of her fellow singers, a shy farmer called Pearce. Before long though, Julia and Giles found themselves in Cornwall too, bringing the relationships between the adults to a head.

There was a lot going on in this story and I haven’t told the half of it. The characters living in Cornwall had their own issues but were generally in better emotional shape than the blow-ins from London. The chapters are alternately told by Eliza, Giles, Julia and Pearce.

What I liked most about this story was the location and the story of the subject of Eliza’s thesis, both of which were equally as important as the characters. The Cornish location led to bookish references such as Manderley from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and to other Cornish authors, which I loved. It was interesting to read about Pearce’s family farm and the trials and tribulations of farming in the UK in the modern era.

I enjoyed A Sweet Obscurity and hope to read more books by Patrick Gale.

Comments on: "A Sweet Obscurity by Patrick Gale" (10)

  1. I’m glad I’ve managed to catch this review, Rose. Patrick Gale has lived in Cornwall for many years and is an active member of the Cornish community within the arts. I’ve heard him speak at literary festivals and he’s a lovely guy. I really want to like his books but the couple I have read simply haven’t worked for me. A Place Called Winter is possibly the next one I’ll try but this one also grabs me because I know St Just.

    (Hope you’re keeping well and starting to get out and about again. Just as we shut down once more …)

  2. Cornwall really shines in this book. Reading it and knowing the area would be a real treat, I hope you enjoy this story better than your previous books if you do give it a go.
    I know, I’m feeling for you, Sandra. We’ve been watching the news and hoping that another lockdown in England wouldn’t be necessary but it has certainly worked (touch wood) in Melbourne, although not without a lot of pain and suffering, particularly for people in aged care.
    I went to a craft shop on Friday night and had such a good time shopping! (I crocheted my way through winter as struggled to concentrate on reading). We’re still wearing masks which are compulsory when outside of our properties and are social distancing but to be able to go out again was lovely. I think it will be some time still until my office re-opens but I’m continuing to work from home.
    I’m hopeful that Melburnians will be able to travel into regional Victoria in a few week’s time as I want to visit my mother.
    After Melbourne’s experience I think England will need a harder lockdown for a longer time than the authorities are suggesting for it to be effective and then they’ll need to enforce travel restrictions too. Hopefully a vaccine will come soon.

  3. I’m not convinced that our population would be as compliant in the face of a longer lockdown. We’ll see. It is hugely difficult for so many across the world. As you say, Rose, a vaccine is very much needed 😊

  4. I was so excited to see a Patrick Gale book! I’ve only read one Notes From An Exhibition but absolutely loved it and don’t know why I haven’t read more (classics challenge I expect!). St. Just is beautiful, so I must read this and absorb myself.
    I thought of you when I saw Melbourne coming out of lockdown, happy days ahead! I think you’re right it’s going to take longer than the proposed 4 weeks, it’s just that they’re desperate about the Christmas economy. . .

  5. Not everyone in Melbourne was compliant either, Sandra! However, enough people were for the remedy to work (for the moment). I guess we’re all aware of how short-lived the cure can be.

  6. I’ll out Notes From an Exhibition onto my list if you’re recommending it, Jane.
    I envy you and Sandra having visited St Just, the photos of the town’s buildings and the sea, cliffs, paddocks and surrounds are beautiful. Still, reading a book based somewhere and being able to look at photos of it on the internet are a delight.
    Balancing a lockdown and the economy is a difficult choice. I think that the Australian states made an early decision that lives would be more important than the economy and have stuck to that decision, regardless of opposing opinions. Being islands it is of course easier for Australia and New Zealand to attempt this than it is for other countries. Plus there is the unknown, some countries may achieve herd immunity if such a thing turns out to be possible… who knows?
    The Christmas economy (or Festival of Shopping as the more cynical in our household call it) is massive and a big thing for a government to shut down. I’m glad I’m not making these big decisions.

  7. Festival of Shopping – too right! Our govt is all over the place, but I’m certainly glad it’s not me. . .

  8. Some experts say that any decision is the right one in a crisis, but I feel for governments who have to balance so many differing views. You couldn’t pay me enough money to be a decision-maker at that level either!

  9. I like that, ‘any decision is the right one in a crisis’ I must bear that in mind!

  10. I learned this advice during an emergency management course and try to remember it when things go wrong!

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