Giles Easton, the counter-tenor at the heart of A Sweet Obscurity, is rehearsing the role of Oberon in a radical-chic production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck’s line from the Shakespeare source-play, “Lord what fools these mortals be”, might stand as an epigraph for both the gentle comic tone and the genial romantic plot of Patrick Gale’s new novel. Like Shakespeare’s work it deals in relocations. Where, in Dream, the mortals are transformed in the forest, Gale’s arty Londoners are transported to Cornwall where they discover both an alternative rhythm of life and a healthier way of living.
At her mother’s death, Giles’s estranged wife Eliza returns to her native village with her foster daughter, Dido. There she meets and falls for Pearce, a rugged, middle-aged farmer. Giles, meanwhile, travels to a festival with his music agent girlfriend, Julia, to watch one of her clients give her final public performance. Along with an eccentric cast of minor characters, they play out a rich comedy of sexual and familial confusions.
While poking fun at urbane, sophisticated metropolitan types, such as one music agent whose “dark secret was that she hated opera”, Gale displays the highest esteem for people such as Pearce’s sister, Molly, who “radiated a quality that had nothing to do with status and everything to do with the uncomplicated acceptance of how life was”. It is contact with Molly and her kind that allows even the most jaded figures — notably the musicologist Villiers Yates — to attain a kind of integrity.
There is a darkness in the novel but it never impinges on proceedings for long. It is Gale’s generosity of spirit and Neo-Romantic perspective that make his such a rare and welcome fictional voice.