Patrick Gale’s new novel could be read as a companion work to his hugely successful Notes from an Exhibition, and in fact, in a satisfying twist, some characters and even objects slip from the latter into this novel. Notes from an Exhibition centred around the character of Rachel Kelly, whose mental instability and solipsistic devotion to her art left a painful mark on her family. The ‘perfectly good man’ of this title is a vicar, Barnaby Johnson, as kind, gentle and balanced as Rachel Kelly was not, yet with the same sense of vocation — in this case, selfless service to the church — that moulds and in its own way scars his family. ‘Ah,’ says his daughter Carrie to another child of a ‘very good man’, ‘you have my deepest sympathy.’
Johnson, known as Father Barnaby to his Cornish congregation, is a wonderful vicar, the sort of transparently virtuous person who inspires others with love and wonder. Serious, vulnerable and touching, he radiates ‘an innocent certainty. This was belief, that compelled one to fall in with it and follow because to do otherwise would be a kind of cruelty.’ Yet with his usual effortless ventriloquism, Gale lays bare the souls of the people surrounding Father Barnaby — his wife, daughter and son — who struggle with the constant feeling that they are sharing him, and not just with his parishioners. In one memorable phrase, it seems as though he is carrying on ‘an important conversation with someone else in the room’.
The troubles of a Church of England minister and his family are an unfashionable subject, and I can’t help liking Gale for choosing it. Nonetheless I found myself on occasion waiting for Father Barnaby to fall from grace, ‘itching to find a fault in him, even a small one’, as the sinister Modest Carlsson does.
Carlsson is Father Barnaby’s stalker, a baddie rather in the Dickensian mould, who loiters on the edge of the narrative waiting to deal some fateful blow. He also, it seems to me, stands in for the niggling mistrust that most of us feel in this psychoanalytical age for such whole-hearted altruism. We have a tendency to perceive it as neurotic, and Gale partially concurs by providing his hero with a ghastly father and step-mother, both joyless humanists, to rebel against.
One of the unusual achievements of this book, however, is to convey — very simply, and utterly plausibly — how a faith such as Barnaby’s adds a layer of hope and joy to his experience of the world. Evangelising was obviously not Patrick Gale’s intention. It is no mean achievement, however, to create a world in which Barnaby’s sense of ‘the distinct possibility of God’ seems, by the end of the book, quite natural and almost attractive even to this godless reviewer.
The thing about Gale is that despite the high incidence of disasters of various kinds in his novels — suicide, murder, the death of an unborn child — torment and suffering are not really his subjects. In fact his treatment of them can seem a little too swift, until you understand that his concern is ultimately the process of healing and reconciliation. In this he is aided by the warm generosity of his style, which draws the most crabby reader into a position of sympathy, and an irresistible narrative drive. Late at night on the day a new Patrick Gale arrives I am always to be found crouching on the icy bathroom floor, banished from the bedroom for keeping my husband awake, feverishly turning the pages. The pins and needles are terrible, but worth it.