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.