“Please don’t feel you always have to be good,” eight-year-old Barnaby Johnson is advised on what is almost the final page of Patrick Gale’s new novel. “Sometimes you’re so good it hurts to watch you.”
Wise words, but in the book – which spans the Cornish parish priest’s life from youth to late middle age – they go largely unheeded. It’s a famously tough task, attempting to mine the life of a “good” man for suspense, ambiguity and drama. Fortunately, Gale’s dog-collared protagonist is far more complex – and sinful – than we originally suspect. And, far from being a dull cipher, he is also that rare thing – a fictional character so charismatically ambiguous, so physically, spiritually and emotionally alive, that you feel you could reach out and ruffle his hair. Forget what they say about the Devil. There’s a pretty good tune being tapped out here in these Anglican pages.
The novel opens with a parishioner’s suicide: 20-year-old Lenny, paralysed in a rugby accident and about to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, asks the priest to visit, only to swallow poison in front of him. Shocked, Barnaby prays for him – then offers himself up for arrest. It’s a credit to Gale’s sly yet wholly plausible plotting that I neither guessed, nor ever doubted, the events and revelations which follow.
But then this is a novel whose primary suspense lies not in the “what”, but the “when” and “how”. Our glimpse of the eight-year-old Barnaby is actually the last in a series of snapshots which dip in and out of his life and that of his family. They seem to come in no particular order, but in fact very deliberately and effectively build a compelling narrative. So we have “Barnaby at 52” or his wife “Dorothy at 34” or parishioner “Modest Carlsson at 39”. Gale’s skill is to keep perspectives constantly shifting and to keep us wondering quite how all these separate destinies will collide.
The collision we await with most interest (and trepidation) is the one between Barnaby and Modest. The parishioner is a former teacher who had to relocate and change his identity following a liaison with an under-age pupil, which cost him his job, his marriage and, possibly, his soul.
In Modest, Gale gives us an all too chillingly credible definition of everyday evil – a self-loathing oddball who likes to spend “long afternoons in bed with a bag of cheap chocolates” and who recognises Barnaby as prey to be chased and, in some way, consumed. Craving encounters with the priest, and of course benefiting from the innocently inclusive nature of the Christian community, Modest tracks him in ways which feel increasingly disturbing and dangerous.
This man is a vividly queasy creation, a character who seems somehow to exist on the very edges of Gale’s writerly comfort zone. I was never quite sure what the novelist was going to do with him, how far he was going to push this darkness, how worried I ought to be. Maybe that’s because one of Gale’s biggest strengths is his narrative compassion – he understands how it feels to be anyone, man, woman, child, young or old. Even the animals in this novel affectionately illuminate their human counterparts, and it’s no surprise to learn of Modest that “Dogs and cats, any pet, disgusted him”.
Not only that but Gale is especially acute when it comes to the shifting dynamic of marriage, and noticeably astute and unsparing about parenting, the easy joy, the helplessness, the weary despair. In a scene that continued to bother me long after I’d read it, Barnaby and Dot’s adopted son, supposedly in rehab but in fact whacked-out on amphetamines, graffitis “Fuck Jesus” on the church in red gloss. His parents assuage their shock and grief by calmly painting it over with whitewash, listening to a Prom on the radio, eating fish and chips and enjoying a moonlit walk while the emulsion dries. Later they surprise themselves by making love for the first time in 15 years. It is a deceptively tender yet appropriately troubling episode which seems to cut to the marrow of what it is to be a parent.
At his best, Gale is an effortlessly elastic storyteller, a writer with heart, soul, and a dark and naughty wit, one whose company you relish and trust. In fact you feel you would believe anything he told you – and if I have a small complaint, it’s that he sometimes doesn’t quite seem to realise it, doesn’t trust in his own genuine power. Now and then he writes a little too hard, too carefully or too deliberately. Relax, you want to tell him. Trust yourself, because we do. Do less, because what you do is already so effective. But it’s a minor quibble in a novel which managed to upset and uplift me in equal measure, and which kept me company – and kept me guessing – right through to its slightly bitter and heartfelt end.