“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.