Fr Barnaby Johnson is taken by surprise when, asked to visit a parishioner confined to a wheelchair after an accident on the rugby field, he becomes a witness to a suicide.

This is the shocking introduction to an Anglican parish in Cornwall in Patrick Gale’s latest novel, a setting not far removed from his previous book, Notes from an Exhibition.

While Gale’s early books were concerned with individuals making their way into the wilds of a barely understood world, his later ones have focused on families and the obligations that go with the interaction.

His characters are connected to the outside world and they have histories, explored in this book in chapters headed “Dorothy at 24” and “Barnaby at 29”, and so on.

But for all that, this has an ensemble cast. It is Fr Barnaby, the “perfectly good gentleman” of the title, whose choices set off various chains of events.

A highlight of this book is the wonderful marriage service for two women conducted in Fr Barnaby’s church (though not by him), and not, of course, sanctioned by the church. It is a beautiful set piece that manages to celebrate a loving union while having a dig at religious intolerance.

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