Some novels get under your skin and linger long after the last page has been turned. They are elusive and rare; reading them is like talking to an old friend. The best ones tell us something about ourselves and the way other people are, and they appear to do so almost effortlessly. Patrick Gale’s novels do exactly that. They are imbued with clear-eyed psychological truths navigating the emotional landscape of characters it is impossible not to care about deeply. Notes from an Exhibition gave insight into the makings of the inner life of a bipolar artist, while A Perfectly Good Man, which was a Richard and Judy Book Club title, showed the reverberations that a suicide has on a close-knit community.
A Place Called Winter, Gale’s 17th novel, marks a departure for the British author, in that it is his first historical novel, albeit trademarked with his supreme narrative control. It is loosely based on the real-life mystery of Gale’s great-grandfather, Harry Cane, and his reasons for leaving his privileged existence from turn-of-the century London and departing for the Canadian prairies. Gale has said that there was always an air of mystery about this ancestor, who returned to England in the 1950s, only to be apparently shunned by the daughter he had left behind many years before as a child when he went to seek his fortune in the colonies. The author has invented an illicit gay double life for his protagonist as his reason for leaving his wife and family, under threat of public disgrace and possible imprisonment.
As the privileged elder son of an omnibus magnate in Edwardian England, Harry has been “raised to a life of idleness” until he arrives in Canada. There he must live from the land as a settler and make a living as a farmer.
A Place Called Winter has been compared to Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain for its depiction of a relationship between two men against the backdrop of the unforgiving prairie. Gale is also an author of immense empathy, with an intuitive deftness in detailing his characters’ inner lives. Harry is a reserved Englishman, sent to boarding school at the age of five, and it is what is not said by the characters that provides the narrative tension, propelling the story forward.
The novel is structured in episodic flashbacks, between Harry’s stay at a progressive mental asylum in Canada, to his previous life in London and adventures in the newly settled wilderness. Each section acts as a layered counterpoint to the others. The evocation of Harry’s haunts on Jermyn Street, compared with the homestead he builds in a “siding” (as the unsettled stops along the railway are named) called Winter in the Canadian outback are vividly juxtaposed.
A Place Called Winter is an epic journey across continents, with memorable characters of a Dickensian colour and vivacity along the way, from Harry’s formidable mother-in-law Mrs Wells and her brood, from whom he tries to shield the truth at all costs, to Troells Munck, the sinister Danish land agent whom Harry meets on the ship on the way to Halifax. In this, it brought to mind The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, not only in its sheer breadth and scope, but also in its sensitive and compelling portrait of a man.