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.