I always look forward to Patrick Gale’s novels. This time around, my anticipation was increased when I heard that Take Nothing With You would explore the same territory as my latest book: the emotional impact music can make on a young gay man navigating the challenges of life. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a wonderful, intelligent and enriching novel.

It opens with the central character, Eustace, aged 50 and living in London. His soulmate died years ago and he’s single after being dumped by a subsequent partner who infected him with HIV. He now lives with a whippet called Joyce and plays cello in a mediocre amateur orchestra.

When he joins a dating app, he meets a much younger man, who is an army officer posted in the Middle East – but just before the pair are due to meet, Eustace is diagnosed with cancer and goes into hospital for treatment. There, he listens to some cello music which transports him back to his youth.

We then meet Eustace at the age of 10 in his home town of Weston-super-Mare, where he lives in an old people’s home with an aloof, difficult mother who is scarred by the loss of twin daughters, and a father whose relentless perkiness masks the pain of losing three brothers in the War. At school, Eustace is shy, bad at sports and feels like he doesn’t fit in. When he takes an interest in ballet, his father wants to stamp it out and encourages him to take up a musical instrument instead.

After seeing a cello recital, Eustace is intrigued. When glamorous soloist Carla Gold becomes his teacher, he is entranced. Once she introduces him to Ivan, his first cello, he’s hooked. “Ivan is your friend,” she tells him, “and first position is your home. When you’re not dancing with Ivan, you’ll feel bereft, and when you’re not in first position, you’ll be on an adventure.”

Carla opens the door to a bohemian world in which “the arts came before everything, including the obligation to be normal”. She encourages Eustace to play the cello in a way that sets his soul free, and music becomes his escape – an emotional support that helps him cope with bereavement, disappointment, sexual awakening, emotional discovery, tragedy and betrayal. It allows him to discover and then become the person he wants to be.

The plot of Take Nothing With You bounces between the two timeframes and is often surprising, with an unexpectedly dark plot twist towards the end. The narrative voice is wry and witty, and there are some lovely observations and period detail.

Standout scenes include an awkward sex education lesson in prep school and an audition for the music scholarship at a local public school, while the chapters that cover the first time Eustace leaves home to go to a Scottish summer programme are particularly strong.


Gale draws his protagonist with compassion and empathy, and the book is populated by some terrific supporting characters, such as former star cellist Naomi, who had to give up performing because of stage fright and becomes a surrogate sibling in Eustace’s life.

Ultimately, it is a forceful reminder of the emotional power of music. As Eustace is told by his teacher at summer school: “Music knits. It heals. It is balm to the soul.” The same could be said for this book.

Matt Cain

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