A Perfectly Good Man (2012)
‘Do you need me to pray for you now for a specific reason?’
‘I’m going to die.’
‘We’re all going to die. Does dying frighten you?’
‘I mean I’m going to kill myself.’
When 20-year-old Lenny Barnes, paralysed in a rugby accident, commits suicide in the presence of Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved priest of a West Cornwall parish, the tragedy’s reverberations open up the fault-lines between Barnaby and his nearest and dearest – the gulfs of unspoken sadness that separate them all. Across this web of relations scuttles Barnaby’s repellent nemesis – a man as wicked as his prey is virtuous.
Returning us to the rugged Cornish landscape of Notes from an Exhibition, Patrick Gale lays bare the lives and the thoughts of a whole community and asks us: what does it mean to be good? A Perfectly Good Man tells two stories in tandem. Ostensibly it tells of the effect had on the lives of a wife, a mistress and three children by the love of Barnaby Johnson, a parish priest in a remote mining community in the windswept west of Cornwall, and how fault lines are opened up in all their relationships when Barnaby apparently assists the suicide of a young man paralysed in a rugby accident. But it also tells the story of how the perfectly good man of the title came to devote his life to the seemingly impossible challenge of living as a priest in the 21st century.
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This isn’t a sequel to Notes From an Exhibition but Patrick has described it as “an echo chamber” to that novel. “It’s often the case that I find there’s a character in a novel who won’t rest once that novel is finished. A year or two after I’d finished Notes, I found I was worrying about Rachel Kelly’s deeply troubled daughter, Morwenna. She was the only character in that novel left without something like peace or happiness at its close; we left her in the midst of a nervous breakdown, fresh from a suicide attempt. She was safely at home in Penzance but she certainly wasn’t happy and it seemed that nobody knew quite what to do with her. I don’t do sequels but I do occasionally bring a character back, if only to answer unanswered questions about them or to satisfy myself in some way. Wondering about her and what had happened to her, I found myself also wondering about writing a novel that presented a parallel conundrum to that in Notes. A novel that would show another family in crisis, another family at once punished and blessed by the vision of a parent, only the parent in this case would be the father rather than the mother. And the divine madness driving them in this case wouldn’t be the heady combination of bipolar disorder and artistic genius but deep religious conviction and profound goodness. Morwenna certainly reappears, as does her lovely Quaker dad, and she helps deliver one of the happier elements towards the novel’s bittersweet ending, but I won’t go spoiling a reader’s enjoyment by giving too much away…”
Like Notes From an Exhibition, A Perfectly Good Man is told from multiple viewpoints so that our perspective on the hero keeps shifting. Structurally both novels are double helices with the central figure’s story, from their perspective, being told in reverse while the chapters told from the point of view of the other characters follow a (more or less) chronological order. As in both novels, it is the reader, not the novelist, who plays God in that ultimately he understands far more than any character in isolation. The reader is the only one in possession of all the facts.
Just as Notes was basically set in Penzance but threw in scenes set as far apart as Toronto, New York and Brussels to emphasize the comforting insularity of the Cornish setting, so A Perfectly Good Man is focused on events played out in two small villages – Pendeen and Morvah – on the rocky coast between St Ives and the author’s home near Land’s End, but takes in Bristol, a boy’s boarding school, Sudan and the idyllic Wiltshire house and garden that provide the novel’s central, mysterious vision. And, as in that earlier novel, the time scheme covers the best part of a lifetime: from 1959 to 2011.
Good characters are notoriously less interesting to novelists than wicked ones. But virtuous people or, more accurately, people trying to be virtuous have been a recurrent feature of Patrick’s work. Is there a reason for this? “I suspect it stems in part from my core optimism; I tend to hope for the best in people – I certainly want to believe the best of them – and this probably spills over into my characterisations. In this case I was partly inspired by family example. My father’s religious belief, profound but extremely discreetly expressed, was one of the inspirations for the book, as was a tiny edition of Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ he’d carried with him since being given it by a soldier serving under him in WW2. Both his father and grandfather were priests and I think he might well have become one had the war not interrupted his education and shown him things which perhaps shook up his certainties. When I went to a cathedral choir school and then was confirmed at 13, I’m fairly sure he started hoping I’d follow in the family tradition…
“Wickedness is relatively straightforward,” Patrick goes on. “It’s usually no more than a giving-in to appetite – for money, for sex, for power – so requires less strength than its opposite. Goodness interests me precisely because it’s so hard to explain; so often it seems to be entirely irrational and counter-intuitive. Bad behaviour is fun to write about, of course, as I hope I’ve shown, but it has its limitations as a subject if you’re not a crime writer…”
That said, A Perfectly Good Man – whose title could refer as much to the impossible manly ideal of Jesus, as to the novel’s hero – contains quite the nastiest character Patrick has ever set down on paper: a rapist and pornographer who nestles in the Pendeen community’s unsuspecting heart thanks to his veneer of unworldly saintliness. Modest Carlsson’s frightening obsession with rooting out the secret behind Barnaby’s goodness, with destroying him in fact, is one of the motors that powers the novel’s multi-stranded plot.
Click here to read Patrick answering questions about the novel when it was chosen by the Mumsnet Book Club.
Click here to read readers’ reviews on Goodreads.
Publisher: Tinder Press
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Reviews of A Perfectly Good Man
In the arresting opening chapter, Father Barnaby, vicar of Pendeen and Morvah near Land’s End, seems half complicit in the suicide of a young man paralysed in a rugby accident. The scene is heartrendingly pertinent to the divisive issue being debated almost daily in the media and sets the scene for a conundrum: was Father Barnaby merely perfectly good in the colloquial sense that he was adequate-good enough-or was his goodness absolute? Modest Carlsson, an unpleasant misfit, edits the parish magazine as a cover for his crazed objective of unearthing some badness in the priest, and he seizes the appalling aftermath of the suicide for his evil ends.
The story is told in layers, sliding subtly back and forth from Barnaby’s troubled childhood as the son of an agnostic scientist to his own loving, yet somewhat distant, take on fatherhood. His faith wavers, he has an affair and considers leaving his wife, and sometimes his parishioners annoy him. He also has endless resources of forgiveness and tolerance, taking daily evening prayers for a loathsome congregation of one.
Celebration of the quirky and exploration of the unusually tragic against a backdrop of his Cornish home is classic Patrick Gale territory. There’s the usual art, glorious coastal imagery, contented family life and a happy wedding, all beautifully evoked, but, as he confessed in an interview with Country Life (June 22, 2011), this ostensibly cheerful writer is ‘hooked on disease and disability’. It’s an engrossing mix that keeps you reading until the end and pondering far longer.
Fr Barnaby Johnson is taken by surprise when, asked to visit a parishioner confined to a wheelchair after an accident on the rugby field, he becomes a witness to a suicide.
This is the shocking introduction to an Anglican parish in Cornwall in Patrick Gale’s latest novel, a setting not far removed from his previous book, Notes from an Exhibition.
While Gale’s early books were concerned with individuals making their way into the wilds of a barely understood world, his later ones have focused on families and the obligations that go with the interaction.
His characters are connected to the outside world and they have histories, explored in this book in chapters headed “Dorothy at 24” and “Barnaby at 29”, and so on.
But for all that, this has an ensemble cast. It is Fr Barnaby, the “perfectly good gentleman” of the title, whose choices set off various chains of events.
A highlight of this book is the wonderful marriage service for two women conducted in Fr Barnaby’s church (though not by him), and not, of course, sanctioned by the church. It is a beautiful set piece that manages to celebrate a loving union while having a dig at religious intolerance.
Herald Sun, Australia – Barry Reynolds
Lenny is “a perfectly unremarkable 20-year old who just happens to be in a wheelchair”. He’s there because of a rugby accident and he doesn’t want to live any more. So he kills himself, in front of a parish priest.
It’s a calm, unflinching, shocking opening chapter. Where does a novelist go from there? If he’s Patrick Gale, he goes on to the reverberations of such a death among the friends, families and enemies of both men, in the gaunt, emblematic West Cornwall of his Notes From An Exhibition.
Barnaby the priest is there only at Lenny’s request. He has no idea what’s about to happen; no way of preventing it. But instantly, even as the sickly memorial shrines of flowers, cards, and candles in jam jars appear on footpaths, a loathsome campaign of vilification begins.
Looping backwards and forwards across six decades of lives, and set in an intimately understood landscape of chapel, mine pits, tenacious farms and tenacious people, grey stone and grey Atlantic, this is a narrative of several deaths: chosen but jolting; medicated and impersonal; televised in “horrible beauty”.
It’s also a story of reconciliations and the varied forms of love.
A son says goodbye to an estranged father; a young man establishes wary relationships with God (religion, considered, accepted or rejected, threads the biographies of most characters). Obsession, devotion, transformative and crippling love all feature.
There are wonderful moments: Lenny’s ashes sent arcing out over the sea inside a sky-rocket; his mother and aunt pillaging the floral tributes; priest and wicked stepmother getting agreeably boozed together; an utterly beautiful, tissues-compulsory betrothal at the end.
And there are splendid characters, continually shifting into new perspectives. Barnaby, physically slight but morally stalwart; the father who is “one of Nature’s PE teachers”; the devious, ruined creature who seeks only to ruin others; the resolute farm girl first drawn to her man in the cow yard; the gay brother from California and his art-dealer spouse.
Gale’s writing is mature, poised, textured; you trust him from the first page. He searches his people compassionately yet forensically. His rendering of human emotions is near-consummate: there’s nothing he won’t confront; nothing from which he fails to mine richness.
One of the very best from the West.
The New Zealand Herald – David Hill
I met Patrick Gale many years ago when I worked for Waterstone’s. He was reading from his new book Rough Music. I was on beverage duty, serving drinks from a make-do trolley that thirty minutes previously had been loaded with that months 3 for 2’s. I can’t honestly tell you I miss stickering and de-stickering piles and piles and piles of must-read paperbacks.
Anyway, back to the story. Patrick (we’ve met so I feel on first name terms with him) was a true gent. I, on the other hand, turned into a terrible liar. You see, he mentioned he was friends with Armistead Maupin and being eager to please I exaggerated a brief occasion when I met Maupin in San Fran. I was on a walking tour and he knew the tour guide and came over to say hello. Those brief moments in Maupin’s company became a lengthy discussion about his life, influences and future plans but I’m pretty sure Patrick could tell I was exaggerating!
Meet the Author events can be a hit and miss affair. If the author doesn’t match how you’ve imagined them to be it can really put you off their books. Patrick was exactly how I hoped he would be; charming and funny. I really enjoyed hearing about his then new life on a Cornish farm and how this influenced his writing. And in his latest book, A Perfectly Good Man, the isolation and close-knit community of the Cornish countryside is the perfect setting.
A Perfectly Good Man explores what it means to be good. The novel begins with the suicide of a young man and the impact this has on Barnaby Johnson, an Anglican priest, and his family and friends. The implications this event has on a small community is told from the perspective of a rich cast characters. The story is told in a non-linear style. Gale selects key moments from different stages of each characters life. These moments are perfectly chosen and are not quite as random as you initially think. Each moment reveals more and more about these characters and the actions that eventually lead to a young man’s suicide.
It’s the character of Modest Carlsson that lingers in the mind. I began to sympathise with Modest, to be drawn into his increasingly pathetic life and even felt saddened at his treatment following a brief fling with an underage school girl, for it was this incident that determines the downward spiral his life eventually takes. In Modest, Gale has created a complex character whose destructive obsession with Barnaby is a dark thread running through the entire novel. He is vile, hateful and utterly spiteful but such a memorable character.
This is a powerful and carefully written novel. It is not an easy read. Barnaby’s adoptive son and his descent into drug abuse is deeply tragic especially set, as it is, against the background of Barnaby’s troubled marriage and family life. Modest’s unhealthy pursuit of Barnaby is deeply disturbing and the conclusion to this murky tale offers little redemption. In fact, the last two chapters were difficult to read.
There are no easy answers or convenient resolutions. Life is never that straight forward because, even with the best of intentions, no one can be perfectly good all of the time.
A Perfectly Good Man has been shortlisted for The Green Carnation Prize, a literary prize celebrating LGBT Writing. Each year I read the shortlist and discover some wonderful writing. The judges chose books that may surprise you and often challenge you too. A Perfectly Good Man is no exception and one I am very pleased to have read.
Patrick Gale’s new novel could be read as a companion work to his hugely successful Notes from an Exhibition, and in fact, in a satisfying twist, some characters and even objects slip from the latter into this novel. Notes from an Exhibition centred around the character of Rachel Kelly, whose mental instability and solipsistic devotion to her art left a painful mark on her family. The ‘perfectly good man’ of this title is a vicar, Barnaby Johnson, as kind, gentle and balanced as Rachel Kelly was not, yet with the same sense of vocation — in this case, selfless service to the church — that moulds and in its own way scars his family. ‘Ah,’ says his daughter Carrie to another child of a ‘very good man’, ‘you have my deepest sympathy.’
Johnson, known as Father Barnaby to his Cornish congregation, is a wonderful vicar, the sort of transparently virtuous person who inspires others with love and wonder. Serious, vulnerable and touching, he radiates ‘an innocent certainty. This was belief, that compelled one to fall in with it and follow because to do otherwise would be a kind of cruelty.’ Yet with his usual effortless ventriloquism, Gale lays bare the souls of the people surrounding Father Barnaby — his wife, daughter and son — who struggle with the constant feeling that they are sharing him, and not just with his parishioners. In one memorable phrase, it seems as though he is carrying on ‘an important conversation with someone else in the room’.
The troubles of a Church of England minister and his family are an unfashionable subject, and I can’t help liking Gale for choosing it. Nonetheless I found myself on occasion waiting for Father Barnaby to fall from grace, ‘itching to find a fault in him, even a small one’, as the sinister Modest Carlsson does.
Carlsson is Father Barnaby’s stalker, a baddie rather in the Dickensian mould, who loiters on the edge of the narrative waiting to deal some fateful blow. He also, it seems to me, stands in for the niggling mistrust that most of us feel in this psychoanalytical age for such whole-hearted altruism. We have a tendency to perceive it as neurotic, and Gale partially concurs by providing his hero with a ghastly father and step-mother, both joyless humanists, to rebel against.
One of the unusual achievements of this book, however, is to convey — very simply, and utterly plausibly — how a faith such as Barnaby’s adds a layer of hope and joy to his experience of the world. Evangelising was obviously not Patrick Gale’s intention. It is no mean achievement, however, to create a world in which Barnaby’s sense of ‘the distinct possibility of God’ seems, by the end of the book, quite natural and almost attractive even to this godless reviewer.
The thing about Gale is that despite the high incidence of disasters of various kinds in his novels — suicide, murder, the death of an unborn child — torment and suffering are not really his subjects. In fact his treatment of them can seem a little too swift, until you understand that his concern is ultimately the process of healing and reconciliation. In this he is aided by the warm generosity of his style, which draws the most crabby reader into a position of sympathy, and an irresistible narrative drive. Late at night on the day a new Patrick Gale arrives I am always to be found crouching on the icy bathroom floor, banished from the bedroom for keeping my husband awake, feverishly turning the pages. The pins and needles are terrible, but worth it.
The Spectator – Charlotte Hobson
Faith in a novelist you know and admire is a very good thing. It can carry you through what seem like surprising lapses in narrative strength: what appears dull and disjointed surely will find some interest and meaning. Won’t it?
Faith in Patrick Gale will be strong if you’ve read him before. The British author of 14 books, including his acclaimed Notes on an Exhibition and Rough Music, has established a fine reputation for mining ordinary lives and relationships with insight and compassion.
Gale’s latest novel, A Perfectly Good Man, is no exception – indeed here he has mined a gem – but it’s an exhaustive excavation. The book, set in Gale’s beloved Cornwall, opens with a suicide. Lenny Barnes, 20 years old, paralysed in a rugby accident and consigned to a wheelchair, takes his life in the company of Barnaby Johnson, the parish priest.
It is the hook from which Gale unravels several narrative threads that for a long time don’t seem at all connected. We jump from Lenny at 20 to Dorothy at 24 (not knowing who Dorothy is) to Barnaby at 60, to Modest Carlsson at 39 (another new character in another tangent), back to Barnaby at 40, backwards and forth in time and so on. Presented like a sequence of short stories, these threads are linked only by Barnaby, but the link is not fully explored for some time. Until then there appears to be little direction, and the initial hook of Lenny’s suicide seems too weak to carry the burden of a patchy narrative that follows.
But then the Gale skill kicks in, a penny drops and everything is illuminated. A third of the way into its 400 pages, A Perfectly Good Man is like a black-and-white film suddenly made colour.
It’s important not to give too much away. Gale reveals his story with an architectural structure that becomes something to admire only when it is complete. In the moment it seems risky, built without scaffold. In retrospect, it seems ingenious.
Barnaby is the perfectly good man of the title and a beloved priest of a small town in Cornwall, so Gale naturally explores themes of goodness and faith. We meet him at what, under linear circumstances, would be the end of the story. As Gale opens and then closes windows into other parts of Barnaby’s life we piece this man together, learn his traits and foibles, his drive and his dreams. This includes the wellspring of his faith, and the way in which Gale executes his reverse reveal – in the final chapter we meet Barnaby as a small boy – somehow freights the issue with greater thought and beauty. Even a dyed-in-the-wool atheist would understand a call to God the way Gale has framed it here.
Barnaby’s relationship with God is by no means the core of the book, nor is it overplayed, but it does add a grander dimension. The good man’s earthly connections are the ones that compel – his relationship with his wife, his children, his parishioners and his family as a child are all forensically explored. Gale’s ability to write about the emotional landscapes in relationships – the sadness, the joys, the widening gulfs unable to be breached – is profound. There is always, in Gale’s novels, an element of tenderness and warmth that brings readers back.
Those who read his excellent novel Notes From An Exhibition, about the brilliant (fictional) Cornish artist Rachel Kelly who had bipolar disorder and how this affects her family, will notice cross-referencing in A Perfectly Good Man. One of Kelly’s paintings features in a crucial plot development, and her daughter, Morwenna, has a pleasing bit part.
The character of Modest Carlsson is less pleasing. In fact, he is quite a repulsive man and appears to have been added to the line-up to play evil to Barnaby’s good, and while he injects a bit of menace, as a nemesis he fails to convince. Gale unfolds this character as he does the others, but Carlsson’s motive for targeting the priest doesn’t sit seamlessly in the greater patchwork of characters and plot developments.
It’s a minor quibble in a book that is otherwise devilishly clever and deeply moving, a fine reward for your ongoing faith in the novelist’s powers.
Sydney Morning Herald – Lucy Clark
The gentle irony implicit in the title of Patrick Gale’s latest novel sets the tone for the whole book. The familiar phrase exemplifies a peculiarly English irony, implying a quality of goodness that falls far short of perfection and yet, at the same time, is acceptably sufficient. It has overtones of the great child psychologist DW Winnicott’s famous “good-enough mother” – that is, a mother who fulfils, by and large, the basic needs of her child.
The “perfectly good man” in question is Barnaby Thomas, the priest of a rural parish in Gale’s native Cornwall (the Cornish countryside and weather is rendered with reassuring authenticity). We follow his life, spiritual and psychological, from his own perspective but also from that of the various characters who are germane to that life: his wife, Dorothy, who against her own preferences is tellingly morphed by her husband into “Dot”; his daughter, Carrie; his adopted Vietnamese son “Jim”, who, in the course of the book, elects to return to his native name “Phuc”; and a very creepy parishioner who goes by the name of “Modest Carlsson”. In fact, the novel has quite a bit to say about the process of shifting identities; this parishioner’s name has also been subjected to a change, to conceal a former prison sentence for paedophilia.
The novel opens, startlingly, with yet another character, the 20-year-old Lenny. Lenny has been paralysed by a rugby accident and is condemned to a life in a wheelchair. As a result, he has broken off his engagement to a devoted childhood sweetheart and, when we meet him, is preparing to take his life. Barnaby, who supposes he has been summoned for no more than spiritual counselling for a beleaguered parishioner, finds himself, perforce, a witness to the deed. Before calling for help, he spontaneously administers the last rites and then, with a characteristic lack of self-preservation, as a party to the young man’s suicide, surrenders himself into police custody.
The full significance of Lenny’s relationship to his parish priest is not revealed until much later in the novel, which is structured in such a way that we not only jump from one character’s consciousness to another but also move within those individuals’ histories, back and forth in time. This is a bold and highly effective technique. The non-linear disclosure of character and motive places the reader somewhat in the position of the psychoanalyst – witnessing at one moment the middle-aged vicar struggling with a withering faith and later, at the end of the book, that faith’s foundational moment in childhood.
The same technique brings us close to Dot: the domestic tragedy of her child-bearing failures, its consequences for the intimacy of her marriage and the concomitant decision to adopt a Vietnamese orphan. Gale sensitively unravels the ripple effects of this apparently worthy decision, on Dot but also on the boy himself and his lumpen but loyal sister. Enmeshed with all this is our developing understanding of the vile Modest Carlsson, whose sinister fascination with Barnaby is an unrecognised catalyst both of Lenny’s birth and Dot’s untimely death.
What Gale does so well is to delineate the unpremeditated spider-web consequences of actions, most particularly those where the intentions are apparently perfectly “good”. The unfolding nightmare for all the family of the consequences of adopting are exquisitely and painfully documented. Phuc, returning to his native identity, turns on his adoptive parents and country, and escapes into alcoholism and drug abuse. This could be clichéd, but is saved by Phuc’s utterly convincing retreat into a saving relationship with a much older woman, whose children he helps and befriends. None the less, he remains unable to restore a loving relationship with his adoptive father who, again convincingly, cares more passionately for his adopted son than for his flesh-and-blood daughter.
The strength of this novel lies in its capacity to convey ordinariness authentically: ordinary love, ordinary failure, ordinary belief, ordinary, everyday tragedy, which of course in its particular manifestation is never “ordinary”. Gale is a writer whose very facility makes him an easy read. This can mean that his subtle moral and psychological insights can be overlooked, which is a pity, as most of us – for better or worse – lead just such ordinary lives. He is also skilled at creating intimacy between a character and the reader. By the end of the novel, we feel we really know Barnaby, warts and all, and his wife and children, and our sympathies for them are not unlike our sympathies for ourselves leading our own imperfect lives. This is not to imply that Gale cannot also hint at the sublime. The final chapter left me with a lump in my throat because it so beautifully captures the shining, vulnerable promise of childhood.
The Observer – Salley Vickers
There’s a particular strain of English mildness that carries within it a finely wrought undercurrent of viciousness. It’s there in the title of Patrick Gale’s new novel, A Perfectly Good Man, which you could either take literally – that Barnaby Johnson, priest to the Cornish parish of Pendeen, is perfect in his goodness – or as a tight-lipped rebuke, that he is adequate at best.
As if to harry us into taking one of these positions, the novel kicks off with what is, for this writer, something of a shock opening. Barnaby is visiting a parishioner, 20-year-old Lenny, who is confined to a wheelchair following a rugby injury. Lenny doesn’t want him there for a chat; he wants him there while he kills himself, drinking a sedative bought on the internet. The “goodness” of Barnaby’s behaviour, calmly administering extreme unction rather than scrambling for the telephone, is left deliberately ambiguous. It’s a foolish reader of Gale’s novels who rushes to judge one of his characters: the careful management of our sympathies is what he is all about.
The book continues in a highly erratic manner. Each chapter comes with a title giving a character’s name and an age, but as these are arranged anything but chronologically, it takes time to work out exactly when the events occurred. Gale’s jumping around in time and perspective is an intricate, circling dance around this central figure of the priest. He acquires a wife, Dorothy, a daughter, Carrie, and an adopted Vietnamese son, but Gale holds off giving him real depth for much of the novel.
Our curiosity regarding Barnaby is given obese form in one Modest Carlsson, a loner obsessed with finding some fault in his priest. He habitually turns up at his most out of the way services, where he is often the entire congregation. For all the slow-burning humanity of the novel, it is striking that Gale has had to concentrate so much malevolence in the figure of Carlsson, whose attempts at doing evil always somehow end up doing good. The book is guaranteed to give the reader a warm glow, but in that there is something Panglossian: the idea that redemption awaits us all, as surely as it does so many of Gale’s characters.
The Independent – Jonathan Gibbs
“Please don’t feel you always have to be good,” eight-year-old Barnaby Johnson is advised on what is almost the final page of Patrick Gale’s new novel. “Sometimes you’re so good it hurts to watch you.”
Wise words, but in the book – which spans the Cornish parish priest’s life from youth to late middle age – they go largely unheeded. It’s a famously tough task, attempting to mine the life of a “good” man for suspense, ambiguity and drama. Fortunately, Gale’s dog-collared protagonist is far more complex – and sinful – than we originally suspect. And, far from being a dull cipher, he is also that rare thing – a fictional character so charismatically ambiguous, so physically, spiritually and emotionally alive, that you feel you could reach out and ruffle his hair. Forget what they say about the Devil. There’s a pretty good tune being tapped out here in these Anglican pages.
The novel opens with a parishioner’s suicide: 20-year-old Lenny, paralysed in a rugby accident and about to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, asks the priest to visit, only to swallow poison in front of him. Shocked, Barnaby prays for him – then offers himself up for arrest. It’s a credit to Gale’s sly yet wholly plausible plotting that I neither guessed, nor ever doubted, the events and revelations which follow.
But then this is a novel whose primary suspense lies not in the “what”, but the “when” and “how”. Our glimpse of the eight-year-old Barnaby is actually the last in a series of snapshots which dip in and out of his life and that of his family. They seem to come in no particular order, but in fact very deliberately and effectively build a compelling narrative. So we have “Barnaby at 52” or his wife “Dorothy at 34” or parishioner “Modest Carlsson at 39”. Gale’s skill is to keep perspectives constantly shifting and to keep us wondering quite how all these separate destinies will collide.
The collision we await with most interest (and trepidation) is the one between Barnaby and Modest. The parishioner is a former teacher who had to relocate and change his identity following a liaison with an under-age pupil, which cost him his job, his marriage and, possibly, his soul.
In Modest, Gale gives us an all too chillingly credible definition of everyday evil – a self-loathing oddball who likes to spend “long afternoons in bed with a bag of cheap chocolates” and who recognises Barnaby as prey to be chased and, in some way, consumed. Craving encounters with the priest, and of course benefiting from the innocently inclusive nature of the Christian community, Modest tracks him in ways which feel increasingly disturbing and dangerous.
This man is a vividly queasy creation, a character who seems somehow to exist on the very edges of Gale’s writerly comfort zone. I was never quite sure what the novelist was going to do with him, how far he was going to push this darkness, how worried I ought to be. Maybe that’s because one of Gale’s biggest strengths is his narrative compassion – he understands how it feels to be anyone, man, woman, child, young or old. Even the animals in this novel affectionately illuminate their human counterparts, and it’s no surprise to learn of Modest that “Dogs and cats, any pet, disgusted him”.
Not only that but Gale is especially acute when it comes to the shifting dynamic of marriage, and noticeably astute and unsparing about parenting, the easy joy, the helplessness, the weary despair. In a scene that continued to bother me long after I’d read it, Barnaby and Dot’s adopted son, supposedly in rehab but in fact whacked-out on amphetamines, graffitis “Fuck Jesus” on the church in red gloss. His parents assuage their shock and grief by calmly painting it over with whitewash, listening to a Prom on the radio, eating fish and chips and enjoying a moonlit walk while the emulsion dries. Later they surprise themselves by making love for the first time in 15 years. It is a deceptively tender yet appropriately troubling episode which seems to cut to the marrow of what it is to be a parent.
At his best, Gale is an effortlessly elastic storyteller, a writer with heart, soul, and a dark and naughty wit, one whose company you relish and trust. In fact you feel you would believe anything he told you – and if I have a small complaint, it’s that he sometimes doesn’t quite seem to realise it, doesn’t trust in his own genuine power. Now and then he writes a little too hard, too carefully or too deliberately. Relax, you want to tell him. Trust yourself, because we do. Do less, because what you do is already so effective. But it’s a minor quibble in a novel which managed to upset and uplift me in equal measure, and which kept me company – and kept me guessing – right through to its slightly bitter and heartfelt end.
The Guardian – Julie Myerson