A Place Called Winter (2015)
A Place Called Winter was a Radio 2 Book Club Choice on publication and went on to be shortlisted for the Costa Novel Prize, the Walter Scott Prize and the 2016 Independent Booksellers Book of the Year award.
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.
That’s the blurb from the back of the novel’s first edition, but what was the story behind the story? A Place Called Winter grew out of a family mystery which had long puzzled Patrick. He grew up with stories of his mother’s “Cowboy Grandpa” out in Canada, who his brothers variously told him lived in a log cabin, killed and skinned bears with his bare hands, fought with Indians and so on. As scant proof of these stories, the nursery dressing up box contained items of Plains Cree clothing and an extraordinary pair of huge bearskin mitts, which tended to be used by whoever’s turn it was to play the Abominable Snowman. It was only years later, quizzing his elderly grandmother about her childhood, that Patrick made the connection with her apparent fatherlessness. It transpired she was raised by a crowd of aunts and uncles, variously kind, malicious or unthinkingly cruel, because her mother died of breast cancer when she was still a girl and her father… well, her father was rather skirted over as an uncomfortable subject. Later still, nearly three decades after her death, having inherited a chest of drawers packed with family papers, including decades of correspondence between his mother and grandmother, Patrick came across the little exercise book in which his grandmother had made a start on writing her memoirs before she became either too upset or too confused by dementia to continue.
Her father, Harry Cane and his brother, Jack, married two sisters in a large Twickenham family called Wells. The girls’ lawyer father was dead and the tribe was strictly ruled by their eldest brothers, also lawyers. All went well enough at first, even though it was plainly not a great love match since Harry’s bride was actually in love with another man she had been forbidden to marry. Harry had inherited a fortune from his late father’s horse-drawn omnibus company and the newlyweds settled at the seaside. But then something went wrong, money became short, the couple and their baby were obliged to move back in with her family, and then, not long after, Harry was obliged to leave the country, taking up a new life as a homesteader in the newly “opened” prairies of the Canadian west.
So far so exciting, but mysteries remained. Harry plainly had not lost his fortune, since he settled in some style. But was his wife’s place not alongside him? And why was his daughter so discouraged from maintaining contact with him, much less joining him in Canada on her mother’s death? And why, many years later, when he returned to visit her in the 1950s – a visit whose only sad record was thishaunting photograph in which Harry loiters on the edge of a family group, a toothless, prematurely old man apparently unconnected emotionally with the three generations of female relations standing before him – was she apparently so reluctant to take her father in, and so guiltily ready to send him and whatever story of embarrassment he represented, back to Canada?
The novel’s genesis began with Patrick researching every detail he could possibly find out about Harry and his story, about the colourful Wellses, about the harsh realities of farming in a tough environment for a man who had lived the life of a soft-handed gentleman until that point. He travelled across Canada, tracking down Harry’s homestead, still a working farm, which lies just north of Winter, which is now a ghost town, long since abandoned by the trains which brought it into being. He then took the decision to honour such facts as he had pieced together but to concoct an emotionally satisfactory answer to the mystery by projecting his own personality back into his ancestor’s situation. He wanted to come up with a story which it was quite believable his grandmother would never have been allowed to find out for herself.
The novel which resulted is a major departure from A Perfectly Good Man and its predecessors, being historical and largely set so very far from the profoundly English landscapes which are the setting for most Gale novels. And yet its emotional territory should be instantly familiar. It is a kind of bildungsroman, being the story of a young man gaining maturity and a measure of self-understanding through a sequence of relationships. It is a passionate love story – cheerfully described by its author as a hybrid of Maurice and Brokeback Mountain. But it will come as no surprise to Gale’s female readers that it is also an exploration of different kinds of femininity. Harry’s emotional and worldly education is largely at the hands of three women: his sad, creative but quietly determined wife, Winnie, Petra Slaymaker, his fearless young neighbour in the prairies, who is very much a prototype of the sort of New Woman who would have horrified Winnie and her brothers, and Ursula, a haunted, damaged Plains Cree “two souls” Harry befriends along his way to enlightenment…
Click here to watch Patrick talking about the background to the novel.
Click here to watch a YouTube clip of Patrick reading from an early chapter in Harry’s story.
Click here to watch Patrick being interviewed about the book on BBC Breakfast.
Publisher: Tinder Press
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Reviews of A Place Called Winter
This novel took my breath away. So beautifully written, incredibly captivating from the start, I quickly found myself immersed in Harry’s journey. This epic novel alternates between time periods, from Harry’s youth and adulthood to years later, when Harry is a patient at a mental hospital. Faced with endless challenges throughout his life, Harry struggles to balance what society expects of him and what he expects of himself.
The publisher’s summary hints at this, but a large portion of Harry’s turmoil revolves around his sexuality. Though he did what he believe society expected (married, fathered a child), he couldn’t banish or repress his sexuality. One can guess, but based on the time period, homosexuality was viewed as a mental illness, people who allowed themselves to “succumb” to these feelings were institutionalized. Though he attempted to resist them, doing so would only deny himself of his true identity. The struggles he faced in doing so were completely heartbreaking.
This is one of those epic novels that demands all your free time, completely captivating both your mind and your soul. Harry’s journey is not only a physical one, but emotional and mental as well. It was heartbreaking to see how he was treated, realizing, horrified, that feelings about homosexuality haven’t evolved that much over time. Society still often treats homosexuals as deviants, unable to have the same rights as heterosexuals.
While Harry’s sexuality is a key aspect of this novel, it isn’t the only theme. The exploration of Canada’s vast land, at this point not yet settled, plays a key role as well. The journey these early settlers took was demanding, many not surviving the isolation or drastic and severe weather conditions. Hardships were a many, burdens weighed quite heavily on Harry’s shoulders.
The inspiration for this novel came from Gale’s own ancestry, a family mystery that plagued Patrick for a large portion of his life. He became obsessed with uncovering the truth. You can read more about it here.
All in all, this is an incredibly tremendous novel that I won’t soon forget. Highly, highly recommended. Jenn’sBookshelves.com
Patrick Gale has conveyed exceptionally well how harsh life was for new settlers in this cold, isolated part of Canada. I was so moved reading of Harry’s interaction with his neighbours Paul and Petra Slaymaker from when they first meet, to nursing him through a dangerous fever through to deeper bonds forming. Without writing directly of his characters emotions, such is Gale’s skill that you can sense their sadness, loneliness and yearning for affection. How is it that he can use so few words to convey so much meaning? This is a beautifully written novel and I cannot recommend it highly enough – a 5* read and I think it will be hard to find a better book this year.
There are some novels that I read where all I want to do for a review is simply write the words… Read this book. Nothing more, nothing less. However I am aware you need more than those three words to get you to part with your pennies or head to the local library, the question is how to encapsulate a book like Patrick Gale’s latest novel A Place Called Winter in a mere review? Well, here goes.
When we first meet Harry Cane he is locked in an institute, what he has done we do not initially know, and is undergoing a rather horrendous kind of treatment. Yet soon he is taken away to Bethel, a community for those who have been shut out or locked away from society. He is encouraged to tell the story of how he got there, the story of how a well to do and well off man started his life in England and then ended up in the middle of the Canadian wilderness building a new life that has seemingly, to an outsider, driven him mad.
Gale structures A Place Called Winter in delightful way, as we get insights into various pivotal moments in one man’s life alternating between their present and their past making the links between the two. We watch how he grows up in England looking after his brother Jack, how he marries and then falls for the charms of Mr Browning; who soon becomes his downfall leaving Harry no choice but to head to the wilds of Canada without his family to start again. In case you are thinking I have just spoiled the whole story, there is so much more to come, including the journey he makes there and the people he meets along the way, not always with the outcomes you may guess at. The last I will say on the plot is that it is a real journey of adventure, danger and self discovery and you will want to read it in a few sittings, often weeping for all sorts of reasons.
A Place Called Winter is a blooming marvellous story. Gale is brilliant at placing you into the heads and hearts of his characters, mainly because his prose calls for us to empathise with them, even if we might not want to. We have all been in love, we have all done things we regret, we have all fallen for a rogue (or two or three), we have all felt bullied and the outsider at some point, we have all had an indiscretion and left the country to become a farmer in a foreign land… Oh, maybe not that. Yet even when our protagonist goes through things we haven’t Gale’s depiction and storytelling make us feel we are alongside Harry. We live Harry’s life with him; the highs and the lows, the characters and situations good or bad.
It also has a wonderful sense of adventure, sometimes exciting sometimes perilous. The surroundings and settings of the book become characters as much as the people. For example the hustle and bustle of London, the leisurely nature of Herne Bay, the power of the seas, the wildness of Moose Jaw and the desolate and endless monotony (cleverly without ever being boring) and harsh extremities of Winter itself. I have mentioned only recently how much I love reading about nature and the countryside/wilderness in books and this has that aplenty.
He opened it, welcoming the cold night air, and stared out at a landscape transformed. There were stars, a seamless, spangled fishnet of them from horizon to horizon, coldly lighting the land and lending the farm buildings, outlined sharply against them, an eerie loveliness.
I love a book that looks brims with layers and explores several themes, or can set your brain off thinking about things from a different angle or that you may not have before. I found the way Gale looks at and discusses homosexuality fascinating and heartbreaking. It is the way that due to society everything must go unspoken. There was no such thing as ‘being gay’ you were seen as a sexual deviant of the lowest order, end of. Even those rare people who tried to be accepting struggle, as Harry is asked “Is it… Is it emotional or simply a physical need the two of you are answering?” to which he replies “I suppose, in a different world, where everyone felt differently, it would be both. When a thing is forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.” We the reader live in a world where it has become more acceptable (though we still have a way to go) and gay rights are fought for, we look back on this in hindsight and see how horrific it is.
Gale even looks at the psychology that this world must have created, the need for secrecy and how it might even bring out internalised homophobia in those who were living such a life. “Christ, Harry! Listen to yourself. You’re not attractive when you plead. I preferred you married and unobtainable. In fact that is how I prefer all my men. Men can’t live together like a married couple. It’s grotesque and whatever would be the point, even if they could? It’s not as though they’re going to start a family.” (See what I said about Gale putting you in the heads of those you do and don’t want to empathise with.) Gale also looks at the ironies of a place where men would dance with men due to the lack of women, and shack up with other men in winter for practical reasons be they financial or simply survival, yet who would exile gay men as they would women of rape or the indigenous Indian community.
In case that makes this sound like one of those worthy books which tries to preach at the reader it isn’t at all. Yes, one of the main themes is homosexuality yet by its very nature what the whole of A Place Called Winter is about is humanity and also love; regardless of gender be it familial, platonic or passionate. It was this which led me to describing it as ‘Austen meets Brokeback Mountain’ as it wonderfully combines a marvellous contemporary novel with the sense and sensibilities (see what I did there?) of the classic trope. It is pacy, thrilling, horrifying and puts you through the wringer emotionally, whilst having those wonderful storytelling and prose qualities of the past where you have the tale of a life and the intricate situations, places and people who surround and intertwine with it.
I will wrap up by simply saying that A Place Called Winter is a fantastic novel and I think the best that Patrick Gale has written so far. It has all the qualities that create a real treat of a corking read for me. It introduces you to wonderful characters, takes you away from the world you know, makes you think, laugh and cry and all whilst telling you a bloody good story. I was completely lost in Harry’s world and his life and recommend that you go on the journey with him as soon as you can. Easily one of my books of the year; so go on, read this book!
If that still hasn’t sold it then nothing will, well, maybe I should add that for a few days (because I binged on this book) I became an uncommunicative zombie whose head was stuck in this book at all hours, even refusing to watch House of Cards! Oh and even higher praise, this book has lots of horses in it and spends some time on a long boat journey and I didn’t even care, which regular readers here will know is a huge achievement. Anyway enough of my thoughts, who else has read A Place Called Winter and what did you think?
Ooh, and quick note, if you are ‘oop north’ and near Liverpool on Monday the 27th or Manchester on Tuesday the 28th of April (next week) then do please come and see me in conversation with Patrick about A Place Called Winter in Waterstones. Details here and here. Hope to see some of you there.
Savidgereads – Simon Savidge
This book is classesd as an epic and in some ways it is, it has most importantly, impossible love, a sweeping sense of time and place as well as larger than life characters. However one thing that it doesn’t have is length. It is a relatively quick read at roughly 330 pages but when you think epic you think works such as Gone with the Wind, War and Peace, Doctor Zhivago or A Suitable Boy. Novels that are peopled with huge numbers of characters and where the main protagonists are given the space and time to explore their emotions, other characters and their surroundings. When Harry gets to Canada he meets a man called Munck, a very shady individual who leaves a deep wound on Harry. But he also meets his new neighbours Paul and Petra, brother and sister and it turns out that Paul has a very similar story to Harry’s. Inevitably Harry and Paul fall in love but it doesn’t run smoothly. There is a lot of heartache but also a lot of hope in this book but it is not really an epic and points have to be taken off for the final Vulcan words ‘live long and prosper’ that Hector says to Harry. Otherwise a fine and finely wrought story.
Epic in scale and subject, Gale effortlessly evokes the grand wild landscapes and Harry’s inner turmoil – and it’s all the more compelling because it’s based on the true story of Gale’s great-grandfather. A deeply touching love story like no other.
Aberdeen Press and Journal
Winter, Saskatchewan, is a real place, first settled in 1908. The town grew up around a station named after one of the contractors who built the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, which drew European settlers to the Canadian prairies because, under the Dominion Lands Act, a quarter-section of land (160 acres) could be possessed without payment if a homesteader cultivated a quarter of it within three years. Among these settlers is Patrick Gale’s fictional Harry Cane, whose experience is loosely based on that of Gale’s own great-grandfather.
Nothing could seem more quixotic, at first sight, than that a married man living in England with a young child and a private income should decide to leave it all and sail to Canada for a life of hard physical work and uncertain chances. By the time Harry gets on the emigrant ship, Gale has established his character with precise, economical strokes. He is apt to stammer and to stick in his rut, having been marked by the early death of his mother and constrained by everything that is expected of him. What changes his life utterly is the realisation that he loves men. In a period where homosexual acts, even in private, were punished both by the law and by social disgrace, Harry meets Mr Browning, an actor who offers voice coaching. They begin a sexual relationship, which on Harry’s side is a revelation of love and passion. When their relationship is exposed by a blackmailer, Harry is told by his wife’s family to remove himself immediately from wife, child and country. Harry’s panic and shame and the terse, self-righteous brutality with which he is ordered out of his own life reveal the mores of the time more effectively than any polemic.
The prairies are a new world where men and women are transformed by a way of life that is harsh but offers a certain freedom and space to reinvent the self. Gale’s confident, supple prose expresses the labour and hardship that toughen Harry’s body as they calm his mind. The farm work he undertakes, the building of his house, the fencing and breaking of the land, are all described in authoritative and engrossing detail. But for Harry there is no chance of shedding the past. The classic story of a man finding himself through labour on his own land is derailed almost as soon as it begins to take shape.
Harry is pursued by a nightmarish figure called Troels Munck who takes charge of him on the voyage out, under the guise of showing a raw emigrant the ropes. In Troels, Gale has created an extraordinary character: brutal, sadistic yet clinging, with a gift for spotting the weaknesses of other men and making himself essential to them. Above all Troels is a creature of superbly developed animal instinct, unvexed by any ideas of morality. With his random, prowling capacity for destruction, he will haunt Harry’s career as a homesteader. Expertly, Gale teases out the threads that bind these two men. Harry knows how dangerous Troels can be, but cannot release himself. “Harry knew he didn’t need to go with Troels. He knew he could find his own way to a piece of land and make an entirely independent start for himself.”
But he goes with Troels. The quarter-section Troels has chosen for him will bring Harry great happiness, and a neighbour whom he comes to love, but it will also bring horror, death and incarceration. Harry is committed to a mental hospital and then a more benign institution called Bethel, funded by Dr Gideon Ormshaw who uses hypnosis to open the closed doors of the mind. He is reminiscent of the hypnotist Lasker Jones, who attempts to cure what he calls congenital homosexuality in EM Forster’s novel Maurice. Neither of these self-proclaimed healers is as benevolent as he first appears. Harry’s struggle, like Maurice’s, cannot be resolved easily because he is caught between two equally destructive pressures. The world will not accept him as he is and punishes him for expressing his sexuality, while he is pressured from within by the destructive pattern of self-hatred expressed in his relationship with Troels.
A Place Called Winter does not offer resolution, but it does offer hope that emotional truth and loyalty to that truth may be a way forward for Harry. He is an intensely sympathetic character in his struggles, his despair and the fundamental honesty that will never let him lie to himself for long. Harry Cane is one of many, the disappeared who were not wanted by their families or their societies and whose stories were long shrouded with shame. This fascinating novel is their elegy.
The Guardian – Helen Dunmore
A Place Called Winter deserves every little bit of advance praise that it has gathered and is a truly exceptional novel. I guarantee you will fall in love with it.
The Welsh Librarian
This is an astonishing book. The characters are so well drawn you feel you’d recognize them if you met them in the street, and you can sense how tired they feel at the end of their day digging the land. The landscape is very real too with the colours, the intense heat and shivering cold, and the big open skies.
This is a traditional saga, of a man trying to overcome bad decisions and bad luck, to be true to himself, and to do the right thing. I didn’t want it to end, and the memory of the book stayed with me for days afterwards. Wonderful!
A Place Called Winter is a glorious piece of story telling replete with detail anchoring it in time and place: clueless remittance men dispatched to the colonies before they can entirely wreck the family reputation, of whom Harry is emphatically not one; the intriguing list of clothes recommended by a specialist outfitter, much of which proves to be useless apart from the helmet made from ‘Jaeger wool’; and the desperate isolation of homesteads, scattered across an inhospitable, often frigid landscape. Knowledge that the novel is based on family stories told by Gale’s maternal grandmother – Phyllis, the daughter Harry leaves behind – make it all the more compelling. His novels have always been marked by strong characterisation but perhaps it’s the family connection which makes his portrayal of Harry so affectionate, almost tender at times. Even the most polished contemporary novelist can get things horribly wrong when venturing into historical fiction but Gale pulls it off beautifully. A thoroughly absorbing novel which reminds us just how much things can change for the better: while his ancestor suffered torture and virtual banishment for his sexuality, Gale lives happily and openly with his partner. Harry would have been delighted.
The settings come alive – the harshness of his life working for the Jorgensens and then alone in Winter felt very real. The rhythm of his life dictated by the weather pulled me in as did his relationships with his nearest neighbours. I have to say that I was right behind Harry all the way with everything he did… As well as the settings, the writing style transported me back in history.
A Place Called Winter is an emotional read. It shares with us the fragility of mental health and the power of those that prey on the most vulnerable in a society. It’s a celebration of overcoming obstacles in love and life. It’s about accepting yourself and redemption.
A Place Called Winter is a beautifully written and tender novel about one man’s journey to find himself, loosely based on the life of the author’s maternal grandfather. Harry’s anxieties about his sexuality is made more poignant by the reader’s ability to look back from more enlightened times. But this, along with the references to the racism and sexism of the time, is never heavy-handed. When Petra, wanting to better understand her husband’s relationship with her brother, asks if the men’s connection is emotional as well as physical, he tells her:
“I suppose, in a different world … if everyone felt differently, it would be both. When a thing has always been forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.” (p270)
If you’re interested in the history of the European colonisation of North America, if you enjoy un-soppy romance, if you like to read about characters who are required to keep the essence of who they are secret and/or you simply want to read a novel that’s a pleasure from beginning to end, I can highly recommend A Place Called Winter.
I was very fortunate to receive a review copy of A Place Called Winter earlier this year. For the last few weeks I have delighted in seeing the steady stream of support and adulation for Patrick Gale’s extraordinary story. The praise is richly deserved too as this is a compelling read and I defy anyone that joins Harry Cane on his journey not to be moved by the events that define his life.
Patrick Gale has done a phenomenal job of capturing the spirit of Edwardian England. I loved his depiction of Harry’s home life and then his awkward courtship. There was a real sense of history leaking off the pages as I read and it was easy to imagine Harry travelling around old London and finding his way in the world.
As I was reading with my ‘21st Century Head’ on it took me a while to grasp that I was reading about something scandalous. But the penny soon dropped and Harry’s story was heading in a new direction – to Canada and a life overseas. To avoid arrest and a public humiliation for his family Harry elects to leave London to strike up a new life for himself on the wild frontiers.
Once he leaves London Harry makes new acquaintances and forms essential alliances. These encounters will give him the opportunity to learn the skills he will need to establish a new life working the land to survive. However, not everyone is acting in Harry’s best interests and there are adversaries to overcome too. I loved reading how this shy character was able to overcome the obstacles to forge new friendships and force himself to meet the people he needs to rely upon – Patrick Gale created a charming hero for his tale and gave him all too real traits which give Harry a constant air of vulnerability.
A Place Called Winter has an appealing charm and tells an absorbing story. Personally I found the elements of the story recanting how Harry learned to work the land and build his home the most interesting. I suspect, however, that the majority of readers will be entranced by the compelling drama surrounding Harry and his evolving relationships with his family and friends. Quite simply, A Place Called Winter is a beautiful story and reading it will enrich your life.
A Place Called Winter is a gorgeously written, bittersweet story about secrets and identity.
Tender, poignant and utterly enthralling. *****
A convincing and fascinating portrait of daily life over a century ago…utterly heartwrenching.
A skilful storyteller.
Beautifully observed…Gale is not a sentimental writer, he’s vividly aware of hardship and despair, but the overwhelming emotion in this fine book is one of tender, life-affirming joy.
The Sun – S Magazine
Lightness of touch, one of Gale’s characters observes, is desirable in a novelist, and it is one of Gale’s virtues…Rich in atmosphere and period detail…this enjoyable tale is both witty and poignant.
Neatly constructed and written in a prose of beautiful lucidity, Gale’s novel offers up an absorbing and often moving story.
A mesmerising storyteller; this novel is written with intelligence and warmth.
Patrick Gale’s eagerly awaited new novel is a departure in many senses. His first for Tinder Press, his first truly historical novel, it begins in Edwardian England before setting sail for the western prairies of Canada. The opening scene is striking in its brutality. A man called Harry is escorted from his room by two sinister male attendants and forcibly plunged into a bath full of water. A quotation from 1896 informs us that Turkish baths were used in the treatment of mental disorders.
A few pages later, we meet Harry Cane as a younger man – orphaned but comfortably off, with a nervous disposition and a speech impediment. His closest companion is his younger brother, though the two aren’t remotely alike. For gregarious Jack, life is one big boy’s own adventure. For stammering Harry, it’s a minefield of potential embarrassments. Gale illustrates the difference between the two boys through their choice of sweethearts, sisters Georgina and Winifred Wells. Georgina is fearless, while Winifred dreams of being invisible. Taking pity on her, Harry resolves to make her his wife.
Theirs isn’t the most passionate of romances, but marriages have survived on less. And we soon learn that shy Winifred isn’t all she seems. A line from EM Forster’s Maurice emphasises Gale’s main theme: “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.” Winifred is a woman bound by social convention to deny herself the man she truly loves. As for Harry, his true nature is first hinted at by the fact that he enjoys poetry and isn’t fond of sport.
His own inner life is no less dramatic. Constrained by the straitjacket of a wife and child, Harry indulges in “fantasies of being liberated by catastrophe. War would descend around him, or revolution, plague, earthquake, tidal wave, something elemental and huge that would shatter all certainty and stability and leave him suddenly, dizzyingly free”. When the catastrophe comes, it’s in the form of a handsome, hairy-bodied man, the threat of blackmail and a sudden escape to Canada, where Harry’s journey of self-discovery continues in a place called Winter.
Gay literary allusions abound. There are references to the Wilde trial and more than a hint of Forster. “Men can’t live together like a married couple,” Harry’s lover tells him at one point. “It’s grotesque.” But at heart, this is an intensely personal book. Gale was inspired by a true tale from his own family history, and the depth of feeling shows. It’s one gay man reaching out to another across a century of social change, and his most powerfully moving novel yet.
The Independent – Paul Burston
Some novels get under your skin and linger long after the last page has been turned. They are elusive and rare; reading them is like talking to an old friend. The best ones tell us something about ourselves and the way other people are, and they appear to do so almost effortlessly. Patrick Gale’s novels do exactly that. They are imbued with clear-eyed psychological truths navigating the emotional landscape of characters it is impossible not to care about deeply. Notes from an Exhibition gave insight into the makings of the inner life of a bipolar artist, while A Perfectly Good Man, which was a Richard and Judy Book Club title, showed the reverberations that a suicide has on a close-knit community.
A Place Called Winter, Gale’s 17th novel, marks a departure for the British author, in that it is his first historical novel, albeit trademarked with his supreme narrative control. It is loosely based on the real-life mystery of Gale’s great-grandfather, Harry Cane, and his reasons for leaving his privileged existence from turn-of-the century London and departing for the Canadian prairies. Gale has said that there was always an air of mystery about this ancestor, who returned to England in the 1950s, only to be apparently shunned by the daughter he had left behind many years before as a child when he went to seek his fortune in the colonies. The author has invented an illicit gay double life for his protagonist as his reason for leaving his wife and family, under threat of public disgrace and possible imprisonment.
As the privileged elder son of an omnibus magnate in Edwardian England, Harry has been “raised to a life of idleness” until he arrives in Canada. There he must live from the land as a settler and make a living as a farmer.
A Place Called Winter has been compared to Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain for its depiction of a relationship between two men against the backdrop of the unforgiving prairie. Gale is also an author of immense empathy, with an intuitive deftness in detailing his characters’ inner lives. Harry is a reserved Englishman, sent to boarding school at the age of five, and it is what is not said by the characters that provides the narrative tension, propelling the story forward.
The novel is structured in episodic flashbacks, between Harry’s stay at a progressive mental asylum in Canada, to his previous life in London and adventures in the newly settled wilderness. Each section acts as a layered counterpoint to the others. The evocation of Harry’s haunts on Jermyn Street, compared with the homestead he builds in a “siding” (as the unsettled stops along the railway are named) called Winter in the Canadian outback are vividly juxtaposed.
A Place Called Winter is an epic journey across continents, with memorable characters of a Dickensian colour and vivacity along the way, from Harry’s formidable mother-in-law Mrs Wells and her brood, from whom he tries to shield the truth at all costs, to Troells Munck, the sinister Danish land agent whom Harry meets on the ship on the way to Halifax. In this, it brought to mind The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, not only in its sheer breadth and scope, but also in its sensitive and compelling portrait of a man.
Irish Times – Claire Coughlan
Patrick Gale’s first historical novel is inspired by a non-story, a gap in his own family record. His great-grandfather Harry Cane spent the first part of his life as a gentleman of leisure among the Edwardian comforts of Twickenham. What then suddenly prompted him to abandon his wife and small daughter and emigrate to the Canadian wilderness? The official line was that he had money troubles, yet he doesn’t seem to have been short of cash in Canada. As far as we know, Harry Cane’s motives went with him to the grave. In this re-imagining of his life, however — partly because homosexual love is a theme throughout Patrick Gale’s work — it feels entirely convincing that his secret should be ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.
Sarah Waters has given us the gay historical novel as gothic drama. Patrick Gale’s approach is both less melodramatic and more optimistic. His highly successful contemporary novels portray both gay and straight characters with the same vivid, clear-sighted but basically hopeful approach; there often seems to be a subtly didactic element in his characters’ successful relationships. Now, turning his attention to the Edwardian era, Gale doesn’t hold back from depicting its intolerance — but, typically for this unusually kind author, it’s a version of history that still holds out hope for happiness.
Harry’s childhood and first marriage, upholstered in the furbelows of Edwardian life — palms in the conservatory and boating on the Thames, with a salacious underpinning of chorus girls and scandal — are stiff with the chilly falsities of the period. The overwhelming impression of the gentle, stammering young protagonist is of a character so scarred by a loveless childhood that he is at first incapable of emotion. A blankness has taken the place of his heart, a vacant space through which mild sensations of regret or concern occasionally swim. His first affair does little to heal him. Its discovery, however, instantly demolishes the façade of his family life.
When Harry arrives in the snowy plains of west Canada, they seem the perfect embodiment of his barren state of mind. As the seasons pass, however, he immerses himself in the reality of a farmer’s life and gains in physical and emotional strength. His first authentic emotion, alone one cold night and gazing at the ‘seamless, spangled fishnet of stars stretching from horizon to horizon’, is a wave of shame and self-disgust so shattering that ‘he felt himself to be nothing, to be less than dirt’.
Along the new railway, settlements are named alphabetically, so Winter, after Vera and before Yonker, is near the end of the line. There are other ghastly ordeals to be borne out in the wilds, but Winter’s remoteness also allows for a certain freedom from convention. Here, at last, the pariah Harry Cane — cast off by his beloved brother, a stranger to his little daughter — can find fulfilment and acceptance.
Gale offers a short bibliography at the end of the novel for further reading, which suggests that he has come across evidence that these early settlements of pioneer farmers ‘batching it’ — living as bachelors — were more open-minded than history relates. How common this was is no doubt hard to say. But I am touched by the thought of Gale setting the full force of his novelist’s imagination to work on a happy ending for his great-grandfather. Like the gymnast who visualises his routine before making it a reality, Gale employs his gift as a writer to will such pockets of tolerance retrospectively into existence — for the sake of his relative, as well, perhaps, as for all of us. Humanity does not look quite so wretched through Patrick Gale’s eyes.
The Spectator – Charlotte Marsden
How would you cope if you were suddenly cast out from your home, family and everything that’s familiar to start a new life from scratch in the wilderness? It’s a terrifying prospect for anyone. This is exactly the position author Patrick Gale’s great grandfather found himself in when, under the threat of disgrace; he was pressured into leaving his family and comfortable life as a gentleman in the UK to start anew as a pioneer farmer in rural Canada. In A Place Called Winter Gale fictionally recreates a heart-wrenching tale of tenacity in the face of the unknown using this very personal tale from his family’s history as inspiration. What I’ve always found so mesmerizing about Gale’s writing is how close he makes me feel to his central characters so that their struggles feel entwined with my own. Nowhere have the dilemmas which trouble his character felt more immediately real than in this new dramatic and intimate novel.
Harry Cane is a young man living at the turn of twentieth century London. He has a life of leisure as he subsists solely on the proceeds of his inheritance after his father’s early death. He’s a naturally shy man who suffers from an occasional stutter. But through his gregarious younger brother he meets a woman named Winifred who seems like a natural match that he can marry and settle down with. Things go along companionably for some time, but soon buried passions come to the surface. Gale movingly writes about the way both Harry and Winifred have desires which they’ve had to suppress due to social pressures. Harry believes he can negotiate his way around the scrutiny of the public to satisfy his needs, but when the truth about his actions is uncovered he’s strongly pressured into defecting from his comfortable life or face the social and legal ramifications of exposure.
Under the pretence of seeking his own fortune, Harry sets out for a rural area of Canada where pioneers are offered the chance of securing free land if they inhabit and farm it for three years. Here the story is set rapidly in motion as this vulnerable individual must forge a new life for himself. Practically overnight Harry goes from being an established person in society to a place where “he was an unregarded nothing.” It must take a lot of strength of character for someone who has lived a pampered existence to move to a new country and learn the physically arduous existence of farming. You might think one of the few benefits such a new life would involve is the freedom to live as one wants to in relative solitude. But faced with the dangerous elements of this new land, Harry relies more than ever on being accepted. He finds that “even in such a small and scattered community, it was better to be known a little than to be thought odd and avoided entirely.” The necessity to be a part of and accepted by a community demand that a person is subject to that society’s conventions – at least, on the outside.
Gale cleverly frames his story with descriptions of Harry’s life at a future point when he’s been detained in a psychiatric hospital. Fragments of his life in this institution are scattered throughout the book and it’s only in the later chapters of the book that the reader is made aware of how he ended up at this point. For some time, it feels as if there is no way Gale can reconcile the parallel narratives he’s created. But it’s ingenious the way the stories of Harry’s past and present come together in a way that is so unexpected it made me feverishly read the last seventy pages to find out what happens. Without giving any spoilers, it’s sufficient to say the ending is a tremendous and emotionally-arresting surprise.
The thing which makes this novel especially moving is the way Gale writes about the different ways people were inhibited within society at that time from expressing how they really wanted to live. By considering the diversity of people institutionalized in the mental hospital these issues are brought into sharp focus. This facility isn’t inhabited only by patients with debilitating mental illnesses, but by people who don’t fit the mould dictated by society. There are interesting parallels found here with the mental institution described in the novel “The Morning and the Evening” by Joan Williams which I read recently. Stressed and abused housewives are labelled as “insane” as are transvestites and homosexuals. Native Americans are corralled into specific areas and pressured into not integrating with the farmers who settle around them. Intelligent women who simply have no desire to marry are outcast as are women who are raped or abused. Gale shows the way in which those who don’t conform are persecuted and more importantly the impact this has on how these individuals understand their own identities. It’s remarked that “When a thing has always been forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.” When people are pressured into suppressing aspects of their identities they don’t even know how instinctual behaviour will manifest if allowed to be expressed openly.
Gale delicately portrays how his protagonist Harry struggles to establish a life for himself when forced to abandon everything that’s familiar. Alongside his newfound awareness for how to make a living off from the land, Harry’s psychology changes so that he better understands his own desires and what he wants in order to find true fulfilment. It’s a struggle most people face in less dramatic circumstances and without having to be ousted from everything they call home. Reading about Gale’s carefully rendered portrayal of the time makes me thankful for the considerable freedoms I have to express myself and openly search for what I really want in life. Filled with joy, humour and sorrow, this book probes into what gives us our humanity. In short, A Place Called Winter is a novel with a tremendous amount of heart.
LonesomeReader.com – Eric Karl Anderson
Set at the turn of the 20th Century, A Place Called Winter tells the moving story of Harry Cane who is forced to abandon his wealthy, easy life in England for the harsh and unforgiving world of the Canadian prairies after an affair. Switching between the past and present, his difficult and life-changing journey is slowly revealed. It is a quietly powerful story of love, escape and self-discovery.
Gale is a masterful storyteller who is able to create a wonderfully atmospheric story that quickly draws in the reader and keeps them hooked. The characters in A Place Called Winter are complex and compelling. Gale does well to create interesting characters who reflect the historical period in their views and actions. It is also a very well researched novel which is rich with historical detail about the various places, the major events of the time and the struggles and cruelty that people faced. It is a bittersweet, poignant epic of one man but it probably reflects the wider struggle of many at the time. Extremely memorable and haunting, it is one of those stories you can’t stop thinking about once you’ve finished it.
Overall, if you are looking for a gripping character-based read full of love, tragedy and history, then this is the book for you. This will be one of the best books of 2015.
Goodreads.com – Lucy’s Reviews
Patrick Gale has a substantial backlist, and several of his books have been bestsellers – Notes From an Exhibition, The Whole Day Through, and A Perfectly Good Man the most recent. A Place Called Winter is his latest, and is his first full length novel that delves into the realm of historical fiction.
I can’t deny that I have rather a large bias when it comes to Patrick Gale. I stumbled upon a copy of Rough Music as a teenager, and promptly read everything else by him. Somehow, his characters all felt like people I knew well, and the fact that he wrote about interesting, layered characters, some of whom happened to be gay, some did not, helped me immeasurably as a confused teenager, longing for relatable characters in books.
So, it was with 90% trepidation and 10% excitement that I received Patrick Gale’s latest novel, A Place Called Winter. What if I hated it? What if I didn’t like the historical setting? Would I be able to write a negative review? Thankfully none of those fears were realised. In fact, I may have just found my new favourite Patrick Gale novel…
A Place called Winter is the story of Harry Cane, a young man in Edwardian England. Left with a sizeable inheritance, Harry follows tradition, marrying and raising a young child. A passionate affair, however, forces Harry into exile, separated from all that he knows, and forced to try his hand as a farmer in the plains of Canada.
In Canada he finds love and acceptance, although the fragile happiness is soon threatened by the return of an old enemy, war, and madness.
Gale is best known for his contemporary fiction, and aside from the first third of The Facts of Life, his novels have chiefly been set in the present day. With A Place Called Winter, the setting and period are meticulously described, with a strong cast of characters. So strong in fact, that whilst I liked Harry Cane the most, I longed to read more about many of the others – Ursula, Browning, and Paul and Petra in particular.
For those who enjoy contemporary fiction, don’t worry – these characters could just as easily exist today. In fact, it’s particularly galling to note that whilst many things have changed since the period in which this book was set, homosexuality and gender disorders are still regarded as mental illnesses by many.
Harry’s story is one that will stand the test of time – much like this book, which I plan to reread and reread. Beautiful writing, gripping characters, and a final chapter that made me weep.
I’d encourage anybody and everybody to pick this up. Just like the characters, I imagine Winter will remain with me for a very long time.
A huge amount of thanks to Tinder Press for the copy.
It may not surprise you that I’m recommending something else by Patrick Gale, but Notes From an Exhibition is an excellent read. Whilst very different in terms of tone and setting to A Place Called Winter, both are detailed studies in the psychology of their characters, and both are gripping reads.
TheBookbag.co.uk – Luke Marlowe
Harry Cane is the elder son of a well-off Edwardian family. When Jack his younger brother is born, their mum sadly passes away. Jack and Harry grow up together and are protective of each other. Harry is so painfully shy that he stammers whereas Jack is confident and has an idea about what he wants to do in his life.
Years later Harry gets married and has a child, but little does he know what is around the corner. His life is totally turned upside down when he has an illicit and dangerous affair. The shock of being discovered and the risk of being arrested costs him everything and he is forced to abandon both his wife and child. Harry signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies and sets off on his travels to set up home on a plot of land near the town of Winter. For Harry this is going to be a big challenge as he has never worked before. The threats of war, an evil and sadistic man and madness seem to reveal in Harry an inner strength he never knew he had.
I loved ‘A Place Called Winter’ and I really liked the way this story was set out. The first time you meet Harry he is in an asylum and then soon after is moved to a therapeutic community called Bethel. That of course immediately intrigued me. I was desperate to know how he ended up there but found I had to wait for quite a while to find out. That didn’t put me off though. The storytelling was absolutely amazing and the descriptions throughout were wonderful. I could really picture the scenes in my head.
It is clear that Patrick Gale has done a lot of research for this book. He has put pen to paper and created an incredible novel complete with flawed characters. This is an intense story of secrets, sexuality and finding love. I think this could be one of the big books of this year.
Until last year I had never heard of Patrick Gale. Having read ‘A Place Called Winter’, I am now determined to read more of his novels.
I give this book 5 out of 5.
A gentle and emotional novel set at the turn of the 20th century about an unacceptable love, friendship and hard work. A Place Called Winter combines the backdrop of the stuffy Edwardian drawing room and the rugged and windblown Canadian Prairies with the effects of the Great War and the steely determination of the European settlers to tame the Indian wildernesses of Canada’s frontier.
The novel alternates, quite abruptly at times, between three time periods that show the vastly different eras in main character Harry Crane’s life. The first time the reader meets him he is an asylum patient miserably subjected to torturous water treatments- he’s selected by an experimental doctor to attend his healing residential retreat in the mountains. Then we go back to Harry’s former domestic life in London; we see his relationship with his brother, his courtship and marriage of his wife and the disgrace that shattered his comfortable domesticity. We then see his experiences on the Canadian frontier and his attempts to cultivate his land and carve out a living as a homesteader.
Harry is an intriguing character, deeply conflicted but really adaptable for somebody previously unaccustomed to change. He undergoes several transformations, wearing some personas more comfortably than others; brother, husband, father, outcast, farmer, patient. He drifts through life, benignly reacting to the incidents that befall him and, for the most part, meekly accepting his fate. For the first few chapters of the book it seems that Harry is leading a perfectly normal, if slightly reclusive life of quiet respectability. Entrusted with his father’s property and income early in life, he keeps an eye out for his lively and dynamic younger brother, never quite sure who is protecting whom.
Harry’s life, however, is revealed to be far from respectable- faced with a catastrophic scandal he is ejected from the comfortable family he has married into, his real reason for departure kept hidden from all but one of the family. To save those he loves from the shame of his exposure, Harry chooses to emigrate to the Canadian colonies- 160 acres of prime prairie land for the taking for the bargain price of three years’ residence. Packing up his belongings, he starts a new life as a frontiersman, falling in firstly with an incredibly unsavoury character and then with two neighbouring homesteaders that bring him comfort and happiness and a uniquely convenient brand of companionship.
The way in which the pages just melted away was pretty incredible- it’s a gently paced read but the character is so absorbing- the reader just wants him to be happy. I absolutely love a good frontier story- not even joking, that’s my ideal life. The author describes in loving detail the metres of fence uncoiled, the ditches dug, the stones removed and the lumber felled. It’s satisfying just reading about such hard work. Gale makes the prairies seem full of potential and satisfaction, beautiful and unspoilt, but at the same time hostile, particularly towards lone farmers, dangerously hostile in the winters and unforgiving places for women- definitely a double edged sword. There are some uncomfortable arm’s length references to the Plains Indians too- there’s a sense of guilty helplessness, a feeling that it’s sad to evict these ancient people, but what else is a settler to do?
Gale’s prose is at times both lyrical and utilitarian, depending on the events discussed, successfully emphasising the difference between Harry’s comfortable London early life and his self-built, comfortable but basic lumber home. Sections of the book are quite surreal and nightmarishly trippy- but the devastating pieces align in the end to tell a life’s story that is hugely unconventional in many ways, but which has sort of all worked out for the best. I felt so protective of Harry- he was such a sympathetic, innocent character and I just wanted to shield him from all the terrible things that came his way in life. His stay at the woodland retreat revealed him as a hugely compassionate and tender person, regardless of the violence he might have felt driven to in the past. He deserved the happiness he found in Canada as he absolutely always did his best for others throughout the book.
If you likes Jim Crace’s Harvest or Steinbeck-ish tales of wheaty struggle, then give this novel a go.
An absolutely remarkable novel, I loved every single minute of it. Old School storytelling at its best, Patrick Gale weaves a heartfelt and emotive web around the reader as we follow a man called Harry Cane through life, love, war, insanity and redemption.
When we meet Harry he is a gentle soul who drifts through life, facing problems as they arise but mostly having a quiet and routine existence with nothing hugely significant going on. He meets Winnie, marries her and seems set to carry on meandering along. Then an encounter leads to a passionate affair, which when it ends leaves Harry in an untenable position – so he departs for Canada, seeking a new path.
It is beautifully written, atmospheric and with a magnificent sense of place and time, undeniably addictive I was enthralled throughout. Fascinating looking back at the differing attitudes of the time, the characters pop from the page and it is all brilliantly authentic and often very emotional. I was up and down like a yo-yo with my feelings whilst reading this, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, always utterly enchanted with the people and the places, by the end I was in tears. The good kind.
It is kind of hard to know what else to say, sometimes I guess less is more. I have joined the growing mob of readers who are going to throw this novel at everyone they ever met once it is released – a marvel of a story that you will both relish and adore, I really cannot recommend it highly enough.
Sarah Broadhurst’s view…
A slight departure for this highly regarded author being an historical tale of Edwardian London and Canada based on a true story from his family history. Harry Case, a gentleman in suburban London, marries and has a daughter. Unexpectedly he discovers he is gay and has a passionate carnal affair with an actor. Huge family uproar and Harry is persuaded to cut himself off and emigrate to Canada. Here we follow him through hard grind and tough living as he joins a scheme to claim land on the prairie. He gets befriended and then dominated by a sinister Dane. Eventually Harry finds the partner of his dreams but along comes the war, the flu epidemic and more tragedy. Harry falls into a kind of madness. Finally, though, there is a happy ending of sorts. The frank treatment of gay love and sex is hardly shocking today but think back and relive a tough and sad life beautifully entered here.
If you like Patrick Gale you might also like to read books by Armistead Maupin, Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst.
In addition to our Lovereading expert opinion some of our Reader Review Panel were also lucky enough to read and review this title.
Sarah Musk – ‘A beautifully written, sensitive book for readers who love a strong story with well-drawn characters and an interesting historical background.’
Mary Chapman – ‘I have loved other characters in previous Patrick Gale novels of which I am a great fan and Harry is one of the best so far.’
Janette Skinner – ‘This is an excellent book, the writing is flawless and straightforward, a great story, and the interest stays right to the last page.’
Carolyn Huckfield – ‘It is a tender story that is beautifully written. Finding out that Gale got old family memoirs to build his story around and this makes it an even more moving.’
Alison Burns – ‘It was a moving story, especially as it was based on a real person’s life. I really felt for Harry and the difficulties life threw at him.
Phyl Smithson – ‘If you like an absorbing, extremely well-written and a reflection of how far society has come in human tolerance, then this is the one for you.’
Sue Broom – ‘A fictional tribute to one of the author’s great-grandfathers’ lives – a beautifully written and moving story that must have struck a chord with him.’
Cathy Petersen – ‘Beautifully written character study of a man adrift from himself, finding purpose, himself and love on the Canadian frontier.’
Barbara Goldie – ‘A totally engrossing read…just the thing to curl up with on a long winter night. A great story.’
Mary Gibson – ‘A compelling novel made more authentic as it is based on a real life mystery in the author’s family history.’
Cazanne Tuckett – ‘A story of one man’s life, loves and how he coped.’
Peter Baiden – ‘in some ways quite disturbing, even shocking, but should find its place with those who recognise the pain whilst finding love, in all its forms.’
Siobhan McDowell – ‘This author is undeniably skilled in his chosen field as he has a tremendous imagination…A rewarding read.’
Alison Layland – ‘A poignant, emotionally involving and gripping novel about the search for friendship, love and security in times of risk and prejudice.’
Susan Walsh – ‘Take two Brothers, two very different men & see what life deals them. A superb Book from Patrick Gale.’
Vikki Patis – ‘A journey of discovery, acknowledgement, and differences, A Place Called Winter is a heartbreakingly beautiful tale.’
Fans of Patrick Gale may be surprised to find that he has written this novel, for A Place Called Winter is historical and set, for the main part of the story, far away from his usual English locations, in the wild, dangerous newly-discovered farmlands of Canada.
From the opening pages, when we are introduced to the lead character; Harry Cane, through to the very last page, I was totally immersed by the story, the characters and the location. I wanted to read the whole story in one sitting, but instead, it took me longer than usual to finish this outstanding and quite breathtaking novel. Why did it take so long? Two reasons; the first was that I actually rationed myself. It is very rare that I say that I don’t want a book to end, but this this one of those rarities, the writing swept me away, the story haunted me. The second reason for my slow reading was that there were times when I just had to put it aside, for despite the tremendous writing and the captivating story, there were times when I found the plot so heartbreaking and so emotionally tiring that I had to give myself a break.
Harry Cane has led a fairly privileged, if uneventful life. The son of a self-made man, he inherited his father’s wealth, and apart from his determination to ensure that his younger, and brighter, and more ambitious brother Jack is comfortable, Harry has no life plans of his own. He spends most days reading the newspapers, lunching at his club and taking baths at the local spa. It is down to Jack, and his socialable personality that Harry meets and marries his wife Winnie. Theirs is not a conventional marriage grounded in love, but more of a convenience for both of them. They are, however, happy in their own way and Winnie gives birth to their daughter.
Harry is vulnerable and confused and after a scandal hits the family, he finds himself exiled to Canada, penniless and forced to use his hands to work for the first time in his life.
The opening pages of the novel finds Harry as a patient in a psychiatric hospital before being transferred to an experimental community where he becomes a subject of a forward-thinking Doctor. When Harry undergoes hypnotic therapy, the reader travels with him and the reasons for his incarceration are revealed.
A Placed Called Winter is emotive and beautiful. Patrick Gale is a genius story teller, he has created one of the most stunning and moving novels that I have read in many many years. His sense of timing, his ability to create a setting that engulfs the reader is a triumph. The story deals with serious issues, with social injustices, with hardship and with also with triumph.
This novel is not all hearts and flowers by any means. The reader encounters violence; there are rapes there is a murder, there is pain and there is suffering. There are also themes of friendship and determination and huge loyalties.
So, I hope that I’ve encouraged people to go out and pre-order this book, I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed. A Place Called Winter is a story to adore and to cherish and to shout about.
5 of 5 stars
I received a copy of this book from the publisher and this is my honest opinion of the book.
Harry Crane is born into a life of privilege. The eldest son of a wealthy man, he is left motherless at a young age. With his father often absent, he finds the love he seeks from his younger brother. Harry provides the foundation Jack needs, and Jack provides Harry a window to the outside world, a lifeline for the extremely shy young man. Almost unconsciously aware of his wealth, but well aware of the lack of direction his life takes, he soon finds himself married. A daughter soon follows. Then he falls in love with the wrong person. Forced to give up his life in England, Harry seizes on the chance to farm land in Canada. Harry’s journey brings him into contact with people who will change his life irrevocably. Sometimes it takes a change of pace and a change of place to find yourself. For Harry Cane that place is A Place Called Winter.
Sometimes I review a book I’ve read and think ‘Am I being too harsh with my ratings? Should this book be rated higher? Why do lots of people often give 5 stars and I rarely do?’ Then I read a book like this and realise why. I read many books. Some ok, some good and others great. But what can I do to show that I think a book is truly outstanding, one that stays with you long after the final page has been turned? One that you wish would not end, just so you could stay with the characters a little longer. That’s when I realise why I rarely give 5 stars. Because I need to save them for such a book as this, and A Place Called Winter is such a book.
Not one word is wasted. Literally. Each page holds something to savour. I didn’t care if the narrative was at a crucial juncture or simply giving a glimpse into farming in turn of the century Canada. Each page was fascinating. I found myself completely absorbed in Harry’s world from first page to last.
Patrick Gale’s writing is vivid and engaging. My heart wept and soared as Harry’s did. I could picture each scene vividly. I was on the sea voyage with Harry, tilling the fields and building his home with him. I was willing him to see the dangers ahead. I have only read one other book by Patrick Gale; Notes on an Exhibition. Though a completely different story to this, what I brought away from that was Gale’s skill in characterisation. That skill is equally evident in A Place Called Winter. Each character was vividly portrayed. Those I loved, I did so with a passion, those I hated equally so.
If I find a book I am passionate about I will happily suggest it to anyone looking for a book in that genre. Rarely do I find a book I would recommend to anyone regardless of genre. This is one of those books. It is saga, romance, historical fiction and a story of self-discovery all tied up in one outstanding novel. There’s even a hint of crime in there.
What makes this story all the more fascinating is that it is loosely based on real characters. This makes the story all the more poignant and the characters all the more real.
Having used up my superlative allowance I will end the review here.
A book to submerse yourself in and to finish slightly dazed to realise you are back in the real world. A book I will re-read again and soon. If you take a chance and read it and like it half as much as I do, you’ll love it.
Harry Cane marries Winnie after his brother Jack introduces them. It seems more of a convenience relationship than romance but they soon have a daughter together and settle down. It seems that Harry would not have been Winnie’s first choice of husband, but they are good friends and it seems to work. It isn’t too surprising when Harry starts having an affair, but he gets caught and has to flee his new family to stop the truth getting out.
Harry moves from Edwardian England to take on a homestead in Canada. He changes considerably there; from rich to almost poor, from unskilled to skilled and from a big family to having nobody but himself to rely on. This new life seems to suit him well however, and he makes friends with those living on a local farm which is when the story really starts to get interesting. The way Harry develops through the story had me completely taken in.
Patrick Gale has written a sweeping, romantic, heartbreaking story that has left me feeling empty now it is over. I’m so glad I can read this book over and over again. It was easy to imagine the various settings Harry found himself in as the words flowed so easily. The book envelops you in Harry’s emotions; the hard graft and loneliness of starting afresh, the love for his neighbours, disgrace, disappointment, betrayal, loyalty, pride, the devastation of war….
“Winter is coming”
That’s what George R R Martin promised about a gazillion years ago. For those that are bored of waiting, winter’s here in Patrick Gale’s stunning new novel ‘A Place Called Winter’
Before anyone gets too excited The Game of Thrones series and Gale’s latest are about a million miles apart in terms of content, but I find inserting as many pop culture references into a blog post as possible (Justin Bieber, One Direction, etc) increases the potential reach of said blog post.
This book (and subsequently this blog post) deserves to reach as many potential readers as possible – so the bigger audience I can give it, the better. With any luck, I’ll be able to tell so many people it may break the Internet (thank you Kim Kardashian).
I’ll leave the references there (for now) and get on with telling you why you should read this book.
Now, don’t tell the others, but I do have a favourite book. I don’t actually name-check it much, although I have referenced it on this blog before, because it is inherently flawed.
Apart from being a wonderful and tragic love story that has moved me to tears before, there’s a large section of it that just doesn’t work. I couldn’t bear anyone telling me they didn’t like it.
A Place Called Winter is the closest novel to my favourite book, both in terms of content and in degree of favourite-ness that I’ve ever read.
Harry – because all the best characters in fiction are called Harry, including Harry Potter and my own hero, Harry Hicks – is a well-off bachelor, living his life in the early 1900’s, and he’s quite happy, with no job to speak of, but nor does he have any particular commitments either.
When he helps his brother court his future wife, he meets a woman of his own and quickly marries and has a child. Scandal soon threatens to hit however, when his affair with another man is discovered.
In order to keep it quiet and protect his wife and daughter from the news, Harry signs over his entire wealth and boards a boat to start a new life in Canada.
That covers the first third of the book, but I don’t think ruins anything, because it’s the last two thirds that are really the meat of the story.
I won’t go into too much detail on the rest of the plot, because I think this is a book that definitely delivers on the beautiful writing, and I won’t be able to do it justice, however I do want to talk about the title: A Place Called Winter.
Knowing I was going to do a review of this book, I spent the first part of the book trying to work out what this place ‘Winter’ was, what it represented.
I felt a little foolish when I realised that Harry’s new homestead in Canada was called Winter, and I nearly disregarded my previous thoughts, but they came back to me the more I read.
Winter usually represents an ending, a dark cold place, where things can’t survive. And that’s where Harry was heading. He had a wonderful life, he had money, no particular worries and a wife and daughter who he loved – despite his burgeoning attraction to other men.
And then he was banished, sent away across to ocean, penniless and alone. Hopes for him were not high and it was likely that having never worked a day in his life, he wouldn’t survive out in the coldness of Canada.
Life in the small homestead of Winter compared to the beautiful ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’ of Jermyn Street in the early twentieth century was hard.
But because life was hard, everyone was just there to survive. They pitched in and helped, but ultimately everyone let everyone else live the lives that they needed and wanted to live.
Compare that to the civilised world of London, and suddenly Winter doesn’t seem so cold and inhospitable anymore.
Harry accepted his sexuality fairly quickly for somebody who had never even considered it before, but part of me wonders if that’s because it wasn’t a thing to consider back then.
Homosexuality, for many people, simply didn’t exist. Whenever news of it did start to surface because of scandal or rumour, it was quickly hushed, as it was in Harry’s case.
So maybe when Harry met this man, the confusion that he had probably felt, but had never been able to put a name to, suddenly made sense, and everything felt right, so he just went with it.
When I was growing up, it was ok to be gay. Perfectly legal, but still a bit of a taboo. Nobody was gay in school, nor did I know any real-life gays until I started at college. I was fascinated by them, but I also knew hundreds of stories where things had gone wrong for gay men who had revealed themselves.
It wasn’t difficult for me to identify what I was, because unlike Harry, I had been exposed to plenty of it over the years, but it did make it difficult for me, in a way that it wasn’t for Harry.
Ten years later, I think things are slightly easier. We’re further away from the Thatcher years, and it’s even more ok to be gay. In fact, it’s almost cool. Kids come out in school now, and maybe that’s because of gay men like me. I’m not saying I’m any particular trailblazer, but I am gay, I came out and nothing bad happened. The more stories we hear where things are ok, the more likely young men (and women) are going to be comfortable in telling the world who they really are.
The winter that existed in London for gay men a hundred years ago has thawed, and while not exactly easy, things are easier. But we mustn’t forget about people like Harry.
There’s an extra emotional punch in the story – Harry’s a real man. Or he was.
He’s the author’s great grandfather, and though the story has been fleshed out from the notes and letters that exist, the first third of it is real. Harry lost everything and had to move halfway across the world, just because his love wasn’t permitted in the society that he lived in.
That’s a very sobering thought.
Alex J Call
Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter could be a staid, fairly predictable story about a man who leaves Britain to go to Canada on a journey of self-discovery. Instead, from its explosive opening chapter you know that it’s going to be so much more than that. Shy Harry Cane lives a conventional life with few surprises and little excitement. Although content with his wife and her family, one day Harry’s life changes completely when he embarks on an affair. When his illicit relationship is threatened with discovery Harry leaves his wife and daughter behind to head to Canada, where he plans to become a farmer. His dreams for a simple life are in his reach, but war and a man with evil intentions could threaten everything. My description, I’ll be the first to admit, is inadequate, because A Place Called Winter is so much more complex than I’ve led you to believe, but I want you to read it spoiler free, so there is a lot I can’t and won’t say. What I can say is that A Place Called Winter is so much more than you would expect from any description (mine or someone else’s). Its opening section is completely unexpected, with Gale thrusting the reader into a completely unfamiliar situation with any reference point (it’s certainly not hinted at in any synopsis), but it completely works – I didn’t want to put the book down because I was so intrigued and wanted to know how Harry had ended up in the situation he was in. From its opening, and from what you know is coming (it can’t be good even if you don’t know what it is), it wouldn’t be a surprise if A Place Called Winter turned out to be a bleak novel. But again, Gale’s novel takes an unexpected turn – yes, it’s bleak in parts, but overall it’s full of hope and love and tenderness. A large part of that is down to the character of Harry, who is just such a decent guy who is so deserving of having good things happen to him. He’s a character who just want to root for. Harry goes on a literal and metaphorical journey through A Place Called Winter, and the reader goes on an emotional journey. It’s difficult to say too much more – I can tell you how how good this book is until I’m blue in the face, but it’s no match for you reading it and experiencing the emotions yourself. Beautiful, lyrical, sad, bleak, hopeful, A Place Called Winter will have you going on as much of a journey as Harry, all from the comfort of your favourite reading spot.