In a pleasing nod to Marcel Proust, Eustace, the middle-aged protagonist of Patrick Gale’s new novel, is propelled into memories of his childhood by a piece of music. An online flirtation via Skype with a much younger serving soldier is beginning to consume his thoughts, at least until a health crisis looms. Telling Theo nothing about his cancer diagnosis, Eustace goes for radio-active iodine therapy, having been warned to bring nothing with him that he doesn’t mind throwing away after. Saint-Saens’s ‘The Swan’ drifting through on his MP3 player leads him to relive his boyhood as a devoted cellist, and to reflect which parts of his past can also now be discarded.
While Eustace lies in his hospital suite, the bulk of the novel deals with memories of his musical and sexual awakening. The first comes at the hands of two charismatic teachers, Carla Gold and Jean Curwen; the second via his eccentric schoolfriend Vernon and the array of classic gay texts lent him by Carla’s flatmate. Leather-clad Louis, to the boy’s astonishment, has somehow ‘recognised and greeted his secret self’. But of the two passions, it’s the cello that is most urgent.
Young Eustace lives in an old folks’ home in Weston-super-Mare (downside: silence and the hovering presence of death; upside: cakes every day at 4pm). His mother is undemonstrative and distant, his father unnaturally jolly. Taken on as a pupil by the glamorous cellist Carla Gold, Eustace relishes his access to a place where art counts for everything. The account of Eustace’s journey into the intricacies of playing, up to the terrifying peaks of the mysterious ‘thumb position’, is thoroughly absorbing. He enters an even more rarefied world when he’s accepted on a distinguished residential course. But what sort of player (read: person) will he end up being? Jean’s keenest disapproval is for the performer who ‘does not play well with others’.
Various people Eustace encounters, not just cellists, turn out not to play well with others, while stars are found in surprising places. When finally he’s horrifyingly betrayed, he has the inner resources — and outward alliances — to cope. Funny and heartfelt, Take Nothing With You deserves a place on Louis’s bookshelf, alongside Edmund White, James Baldwin and Genet. But on the jacket the cellist Steven Isserlis calls this ‘a musical novel by a real musician’, which I suspect will please Gale far more than any mere critic’s praise.
Eustace is middle-aged, musical, HIV-positive and living with his whippet Joyce, when life springs good and bad surprises. First, he finds new love with an army officer serving in the Middle East; and second, he learns that he has cancer. Going into a lead-lined room for radiotherapy, he is told to bring only things that he won’t mind leaving behind. Among his few possessions is an MP3 player of cello music from his friend Naomi. It sets him thinking back over his life, especially his unhappy teens in Weston-super-Mare, where his parents ran an old people’s home and his mother grew increasingly disturbed. Salvation comes in the form of a cello teacher, who opens up a new realm where he meets a bohemian circle, finds his sexuality and, above all, applies himself seriously to music. Gale has a devoted following, with 19 novels under his belt since The Aerodynamics of Pork, in 1985. This warm and humane novel, stopping just short of sentimentality, is not only about love but also the value of art.
Eustace is glowing. It’s not so much his medication – although the cancer-zapping pill he has just taken would get a Geiger counter going – as his mood. After months of virtual dating, he’s about to meet his online squeeze, Theo, some 20 years his junior.
The timing isn’t great. Having reached “an age when he was reassured that life was unlikely to surprise him any further”, Eustace had been firmly set for proverbial pipe and slipperdom, not life-changing encounters with beautiful men in army fatigues. And the fact that he’s “quite possibly dying” may put a dampener on his first real-life date. (He hasn’t even told Theo he’s in hospital.)
For all this, Patrick Gale’s hero remains upbeat, almost relishing the 24 hours of solitude enforced by his radioactive cancer treatment. Using the hospital isolation room as a kind of vortex, the novel moves between Eustace’s unexpected mid-life romance and his teenage years in run-down Weston-super-Mare.
Take Nothing With You marks a move from Gale’s beloved Cornish landscape, but it’s also a return of sorts. While his Costa-shortlisted A Place Called Winter transported readers to the Canadian prairies, this captivating novel, Gale’s 18th, shows him to be better than ever, and is closer to home. A deeply autobiographical work, it draws on his own experiences of sexuality, music and childhood trauma.
An only son living in a family-run old people’s home, Eustace takes cello lessons with the spellbindingly bohemian Carla Gold (think Jacqueline du Pré meets Bruno Tonioli, in florals). His gift takes him to the edge of the professional musical world – in the holidays, he learns alongside a group of equally talented child musicians. Flaunting their perfect pitch or “casually demoralising” each other with “a cascade of Vivaldi”, Gale’s players are spiky and precocious, like so many musical versions of Noel Streatfeild’s small ballet stars.
L P Hartley’s The Go-Between is a more explicit literary touchstone – and, as with that classic, the book’s tension hinges on how much, or how little, a child knows about the grown-ups. It’s not long before Eustace finds himself an unwitting player in the messiness of adult lives, with all their forbidden love affairs, marital discord, and unspoken truths. The plot is tight, and the surprises keep coming. But the journey is reflective as well as dramatic. Gale encourages us to think not just about the rifts between people, but also about the contradictory versions of ourselves.
The past may well be, as Hartley said, a foreign country, but most of us don’t get through its customs without a holdall of mental souvenirs – and some of them are pretty ugly. Cursed with a selfish, unbalanced and “depressingly indestructible” mother, Eustace has quite a bit to shoulder. The image of a cello-lugging teen-hero, trudging the streets like a mini-Atlas, is the book’s leitmotif. But just as that instrument brings light as well as weight, Gale’s novel is generously optimistic. It shows how our past shapes us, but suggests that we can make something from the emotional burdens that we bear. It also illuminates the idea that it’s OK not to be perfect.
It’s hard to make writing feel this easy and compelling. Gale’s translucent prose and subtle structuring are artful but never showy. (It’s a gift he shares with Anthony Trollope, who gets a few fond hat tips here, not least in the title.) It’s also very sexy. Passionate, appetitive, flirtatious, Gale can write of the mind, but he also gets the body – from the bat-squeak of arousal in a London club, to the heady musk of teenage fumblings in a bed of “ivy, discarded crisp packets and used condoms”. Food is given its due, too, from stroopwafels to a step-by-step recipe for pasta sauce that ensures “you will never lack friends”. Gale is an accomplished cellist, and the sound of music is described with just enough detail to make you seek it out.
As he walks out of the isolation suite, Eustace takes nothing with him. Hospital regs dictate that his T-shirt, boxers, and even the cheap MP3 player of cello music, must go into the bin. Loved ones can look, but not, until the radiation wears off, touch, as if he’s stuck behind a glass screen. I closed the book with a similar sense of longing. Eustace – who had become flesh and blood – was now beyond my grasp. It’s a novel that evokes the most precious of feelings, the feeling of falling, of not wanting things to end. Read it once, fast. Then again, savouring the story. And stop and listen to the music as you go.
A lovely and lyrical coming of age tale.
Gale creates characters you can’t help but love, and a story you have no choice but to get lost in. ***** (Isabelle Broom)
Patrick Gale plays the modern and baroque cello and while you don’t have to be musical to enjoy this well-crafted novel, it would help. Eustace is a cellist, a gardener and a gay bachelor in his early 50s, living a comfortable, leisurely life in London.
He is searching for a new love but just when he makes a connection with Theo, a soldier serving in Afghanistan, he discovers that he has thyroid cancer. After an operation Eustace is administered a highly radioactive drug to clear up cancerous traces so he has to spend 24 hours in isolation.
These hours give him the opportunity to review his strange, lonely upbringing, briefly redeemed by music. This is a rite-of-passage novel where we see Eustace emerge from childhood through confused adolescence to adulthood.
An only child Eustace was raised in an old people’s home run by his unhappily married parents in the depressed seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. Both appear detached from their son, his father’s constant attempts at humour disguising the deeper misery which is etched on his mother’s face.
Eustace is bullied at his prep school, but his life is transformed when he begins to learn the cello with Carla Gold, an accomplished performer and teacher, and discovers that he has a rare talent. He joins “the blessed circle of the musical… for whom nothing was as important as music” and shares its joy with other young performers.
Each Friday his mother takes him to stay with Carla and the gay male couple with whom she lives, an experience which opens up new horizons for both Eustace and his mother.
With his parents struggling financially the cello offers him the chance of a music scholarship to an independent school where his interest will be celebrated. But as he begins to acknowledge the fact that he is gay a series of family disasters have profound consequences.
Having built up the tension stealthily Gale rushes to a slightly abrupt conclusion but that is a small caveat. This is an emotionally charged and humane tale beautifully conveying a child’s partial view of the world.
Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing With You begins with a hero in crisis. Eustace, aged 50 and HIV-positive, has cancer and is on the brink of falling in love. His only close friend is Naomi, a brilliant cellist who has given up performing. Eustace was once a cellist too and music was his escape from a peculiar childhood — he grew up in an old people’s home in Weston-super-Mare. He returns to the past to tell the whole story.
Into the life of young Eustace — and the life of his disappointed, controlling mother — comes a bohemian cello teacher, and the confused boy is shown a new and bewildering world of adult emotions. There is a natural warmth to Gale’s writing and, without losing sympathy with his dotty characters, he is very amusing.
Patrick Gale is one those rare writers whose work is well-reviewed and popular. Take Nothing With You is Gale’s 16th novel, and when you add two short story collections and numerous screenplays, it strikes me there aren’t many gay authors, writing about the gay experience, as prolific and successful as he, anywhere in the world.
Not unusually for an author with this body of work, we find familiar themes. Take Nothing With You is a coming-of-gay-age drama and like last year’s original BBC mini-series, Man in the Orange Shirt, there’s the exploration of the gay experience in the past and present playing out in two timelines. Another familiarity, a recent Galian twist, if you like, is that, in the past, those who are at war with their sexuality are family members of the novel’s gay hero. In Man in the Orange Shirt a gay character struggles with his sexuality while in the past so does his grandfather. In Take Nothing With You our gay hero is coming to terms with his sexuality while his mother explores then represses hers.
Our story follows Eustace, a gay Londoner in his 50s, who has recently entered into an online relationship with a soldier posted overseas. Gale describes the online dating world with honesty and humour. The trials and, at times, absurdities, married with genuine emotional connection contained within a virtual relationship, are all convincingly portrayed. While Eustace is falling in love, he discovers he has cancer of the thyroid. And is given radioactive iodine therapy. This involves a short spell in a lead-lined hospital suite, where he listens to cello music recorded for him by his best friend, Naomi, with whom he played cello as a youngster. The sounds transport him out of that confined space, and time, back to his 1970s boyhood in Weston-Super-Mare.
We watch young Eustace as he falls for the cello and dedicates himself to it, dreaming of going to a special music school when he’s older. The characters he meets, especially his teacher, the exotic Carla Gold, become his biggest influences. His mother also falls under Carla’s spell, romantically, though Eustace is oblivious. Through Carla he also spends time with a gay couple she lives with, where his lessons take place. He observes gay life in the flesh, so to speak, as well as in the novels and soft porn magazines he has access to while there. When he sneaks some home and they’re found by his mother, things take a dark turn.
The coming-of-gay-age is handled kindly, with warmth, but Gale doesn’t shy away from the young man’s sexual explorations, which is important, especially given his wide readership. One of the joys of Gale’s writing is how even the smallest of characters can appear fully formed due, in part, to a charming wickedness alongside deeper observations. Mrs Duffy the organist, for example, has “an endearingly plain face, like a bulldog’s, and was evidently rather shy so he wondered if she’s taken up the organ as a way of hiding herself away”.
Is it is not an exaggeration to say that Gale is one of Britain’s best-loved novelists and as with any work by a writer of his calibre, there is little to criticise. However, one or two things stretched credibility. In the present, we are told how Eustace had a lover who moved him into his home after knowing him two days and on the third day made a new will leaving Eustace his house, belongings and business. I was also struck that only the other gay characters notice Eustace’s burgeoning sexuality, none of his friends, family or peers at school notice or comment (never mind berate or bully him) until he is outed.
A real-life visit to Weston-Super-Mare was Gale’s inspiration for this novel. This, the gay theme, that the author plays the cello and his own father’s closeted sexuality, shows how Gale weaves his life experience with his fertile imagination. Perhaps this is what imbues his work with such heart and authenticity, and what makes Take Nothing With You, so readable, so believable, so . . . lovable. You’ll be carried along by the music of Gale’s prose, his charm, wit and warmth, and his empathy for us, for what it means to be human and other.
Patrick Gale’s experience as a child who found salvation and a sense of belonging in music deeply informs this, his 16th novel.
Growing up in Weston-super-Mare, sensitive Eustace has always felt out of place, until his mother signs him up for lessons with an inspirational cello teacher.
Soon, Eustace can think of little else —except his hopeful, fumbling relationship with his best friend, Vernon — and becomes good enough at the cello for his parents to send him on a summer residency at a highly exclusive music camp (but not good enough to gain a permanent place).
Told in flashbacks as Eustace, in late middle-age and facing a cancer diagnosis, looks back on a life that ended up not involving music at all, it proceeds with the partial, unresolved structure of memory itself. Some aspects of Eustace’s life, specifically the actions of his possibly bisexual mother, are never made fully clear.
Gale is excellent on the hot, messy nature of self-discovery and sexual awakening, but curiously not so good at writing about music. The extensive detailing of Eustace’s relationship with the cello is precisely where the novel refuses to sing.
I always look forward to Patrick Gale’s novels. This time around, my anticipation was increased when I heard that Take Nothing With You would explore the same territory as my latest book: the emotional impact music can make on a young gay man navigating the challenges of life. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a wonderful, intelligent and enriching novel.
It opens with the central character, Eustace, aged 50 and living in London. His soulmate died years ago and he’s single after being dumped by a subsequent partner who infected him with HIV. He now lives with a whippet called Joyce and plays cello in a mediocre amateur orchestra.
When he joins a dating app, he meets a much younger man, who is an army officer posted in the Middle East – but just before the pair are due to meet, Eustace is diagnosed with cancer and goes into hospital for treatment. There, he listens to some cello music which transports him back to his youth.
We then meet Eustace at the age of 10 in his home town of Weston-super-Mare, where he lives in an old people’s home with an aloof, difficult mother who is scarred by the loss of twin daughters, and a father whose relentless perkiness masks the pain of losing three brothers in the War. At school, Eustace is shy, bad at sports and feels like he doesn’t fit in. When he takes an interest in ballet, his father wants to stamp it out and encourages him to take up a musical instrument instead.
After seeing a cello recital, Eustace is intrigued. When glamorous soloist Carla Gold becomes his teacher, he is entranced. Once she introduces him to Ivan, his first cello, he’s hooked. “Ivan is your friend,” she tells him, “and first position is your home. When you’re not dancing with Ivan, you’ll feel bereft, and when you’re not in first position, you’ll be on an adventure.”
Carla opens the door to a bohemian world in which “the arts came before everything, including the obligation to be normal”. She encourages Eustace to play the cello in a way that sets his soul free, and music becomes his escape – an emotional support that helps him cope with bereavement, disappointment, sexual awakening, emotional discovery, tragedy and betrayal. It allows him to discover and then become the person he wants to be.
The plot of Take Nothing With You bounces between the two timeframes and is often surprising, with an unexpectedly dark plot twist towards the end. The narrative voice is wry and witty, and there are some lovely observations and period detail.
Standout scenes include an awkward sex education lesson in prep school and an audition for the music scholarship at a local public school, while the chapters that cover the first time Eustace leaves home to go to a Scottish summer programme are particularly strong.
Gale draws his protagonist with compassion and empathy, and the book is populated by some terrific supporting characters, such as former star cellist Naomi, who had to give up performing because of stage fright and becomes a surrogate sibling in Eustace’s life.
Ultimately, it is a forceful reminder of the emotional power of music. As Eustace is told by his teacher at summer school: “Music knits. It heals. It is balm to the soul.” The same could be said for this book.