Charles Causley was a poet’s poet. Both Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin considered him the finest candidate for the laureateship, which Hughes later won. Now Patrick Gale has made him a novelist’s poet in this richly engaging fictionalised account of his early life.

Mother’s Boy is bookended by two world wars: the first, in which Charles is born, and his father Charlie suffers the injuries that would lead to his premature death; the second, in which Charles, who had written schoolboy verse, ‘although poetry was not really his thing’, discovers his poetic voice while serving as a coder in the navy.

The novel’s main subject is the intense, quasi-incestuous relationship between Charles and his mother Laura, a church-going laundress, who raises him singlehandedly. Charles is born after she instigates a bout of lovemaking with the exhausted Charlie on his brief return from the Front, because she believes a baby to be her due. The ‘flushes of pleasure’ she feels on nursing him are explicitly sexual and, as he grows, Charles replaces Charlie in her affections, which she knows to be ‘a terrible thing, almost a sin, damaging to both of them’.

Laura is fiercely protective of Charles, a bespectacled, bookish, bullied child. She senses that he is not like other boys and, while proud of his achievements, is a little afraid of him. She feels more at ease with Terry and Jerry, twin East End evacuees who are billeted on her. When she watches Charles entertaining them on leave, she ‘saw what a brilliant father he would make’ and is overcome with an inexplicable sadness.

Just as Laura is unable to articulate what sets him apart from his fellows, so Charles hides from it. When a school friend shocks him with a kiss, Charles considers it ‘a sin and against the law’. Navy life confirms his sexual identity as well as his poetic gift, but at the crucial moment he rejects Cushty, a sailor very much in the style of Quentin Crisp’s ‘great dark man’, who both saves his life and takes his virginity.

Gale, an adoptive Cornishman, brilliantly evokes Causley’s native county in the first part of the 20th century – the isolated village communities for whom neighbouring Devon is practically a foreign country and the changes brought about by the influx of strangers, not least America’s racially segregated GIs.

This deeply felt, elegantly written novel will be relished by admirers of both the author and his subject.
Michael Arditti

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