Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Patrick Gale’

A Sweet Obscurity by Patrick Gale

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.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

A Place Called Winter is the first novel I’ve read by Patrick Gale. I chose this book because of the title. It turns out that the intriguingly named Winter is the place in Canada where the hero of this story lived.

Harry Cane was born the eldest son to a wealthy family in England in the late 1800s. When his younger brother Jack was born, their mother died and their father, unable to face life without his wife, left his children with relatives and left to live and travel on the Continent. Harry and Jack grew up in boarding schools where shy, stuttering Harry suffered, and outgoing, likeable Jack thrived.

When they grew up, Harry inherited his father’s fortune while Jack studied to become a vet. Harry lived a quiet, patterned life, reading the paper and taking walks before meeting Jack of an evening. Later, the brothers married sisters and Harry and his wife had a daughter.

Things changed for Harry when he met a charismatic actor who offered him voice lessons to cure his stutter. He and the actor started a homosexual affair which eventually became known to his wife’s brother, who forced Harry to make over all of his assets to his wife and daughter and leave England. On his journey to Canada Harry met Troels Munck, who offered to set him up on a desirable property if he worked for and earned farming with Troel’s cousins for a year first. Although Troels was a bully who casually and violently raped Harry on their last evening before leaving the city for the Canadian prairies, Harry agreed, knowing that Troels’ offer would give him the best opportunity for success.

Harry served his year on the farm, then Troels, true to his word, arranged for Harry to take over a partly cleared and fenced parcel of land near Winter (a real place which was settled in 1908). While there, Harry became dear friends with his neighbours, a brother and sister who were farming their own parcel of land.

The story of Harry’s background is interwoven with a mysterious current section of the story, where Harry is a patient in a mental asylum, followed by his being a patient in a retreat where the leading doctor takes on what he considers to be interesting cases to study. Harry befriends another patient, a Cree man who lived as a woman.

I don’t know why, but my last year of reading has been filled with novels with gay main characters. This has been quite by accident, as I choose most of my books by their titles and covers. I wonder if this is because there are more novels with a main character who is gay being published these days or simply a coincidence. Several of these novels have been historical too, which I hadn’t expected but have enjoyed.

I particularly liked reading about Harry’s work in Canada, settling and clearing his land and living in a tent until he was in a position to build a house, all of which reminded me of my own family’s stories of coming to Australia. 

A Place Called Winter is a gentle, beautifully told story, but unfortunately for me it came too soon after reading Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, which has a similar premise. I believe A Place Called Winter is loosely based on that of the author’s own great grandfather. Despite the similarities to Barry’s story, I’ll be happy to read more of Patrick Gale’s works.

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