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.