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.

Clare Allfree

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