Faith in a novelist you know and admire is a very good thing. It can carry you through what seem like surprising lapses in narrative strength: what appears dull and disjointed surely will find some interest and meaning. Won’t it?
Faith in Patrick Gale will be strong if you’ve read him before. The British author of 14 books, including his acclaimed Notes on an Exhibition and Rough Music, has established a fine reputation for mining ordinary lives and relationships with insight and compassion.
Gale’s latest novel, A Perfectly Good Man, is no exception – indeed here he has mined a gem – but it’s an exhaustive excavation. The book, set in Gale’s beloved Cornwall, opens with a suicide. Lenny Barnes, 20 years old, paralysed in a rugby accident and consigned to a wheelchair, takes his life in the company of Barnaby Johnson, the parish priest.
It is the hook from which Gale unravels several narrative threads that for a long time don’t seem at all connected. We jump from Lenny at 20 to Dorothy at 24 (not knowing who Dorothy is) to Barnaby at 60, to Modest Carlsson at 39 (another new character in another tangent), back to Barnaby at 40, backwards and forth in time and so on. Presented like a sequence of short stories, these threads are linked only by Barnaby, but the link is not fully explored for some time. Until then there appears to be little direction, and the initial hook of Lenny’s suicide seems too weak to carry the burden of a patchy narrative that follows.
But then the Gale skill kicks in, a penny drops and everything is illuminated. A third of the way into its 400 pages, A Perfectly Good Man is like a black-and-white film suddenly made colour.
It’s important not to give too much away. Gale reveals his story with an architectural structure that becomes something to admire only when it is complete. In the moment it seems risky, built without scaffold. In retrospect, it seems ingenious.
Barnaby is the perfectly good man of the title and a beloved priest of a small town in Cornwall, so Gale naturally explores themes of goodness and faith. We meet him at what, under linear circumstances, would be the end of the story. As Gale opens and then closes windows into other parts of Barnaby’s life we piece this man together, learn his traits and foibles, his drive and his dreams. This includes the wellspring of his faith, and the way in which Gale executes his reverse reveal – in the final chapter we meet Barnaby as a small boy – somehow freights the issue with greater thought and beauty. Even a dyed-in-the-wool atheist would understand a call to God the way Gale has framed it here.
Barnaby’s relationship with God is by no means the core of the book, nor is it overplayed, but it does add a grander dimension. The good man’s earthly connections are the ones that compel – his relationship with his wife, his children, his parishioners and his family as a child are all forensically explored. Gale’s ability to write about the emotional landscapes in relationships – the sadness, the joys, the widening gulfs unable to be breached – is profound. There is always, in Gale’s novels, an element of tenderness and warmth that brings readers back.
Those who read his excellent novel Notes From An Exhibition, about the brilliant (fictional) Cornish artist Rachel Kelly who had bipolar disorder and how this affects her family, will notice cross-referencing in A Perfectly Good Man. One of Kelly’s paintings features in a crucial plot development, and her daughter, Morwenna, has a pleasing bit part.
The character of Modest Carlsson is less pleasing. In fact, he is quite a repulsive man and appears to have been added to the line-up to play evil to Barnaby’s good, and while he injects a bit of menace, as a nemesis he fails to convince. Gale unfolds this character as he does the others, but Carlsson’s motive for targeting the priest doesn’t sit seamlessly in the greater patchwork of characters and plot developments.
It’s a minor quibble in a book that is otherwise devilishly clever and deeply moving, a fine reward for your ongoing faith in the novelist’s powers.