Patrick Gale’s eagerly awaited new novel is a departure in many senses. His first for Tinder Press, his first truly historical novel, it begins in Edwardian England before setting sail for the western prairies of Canada. The opening scene is striking in its brutality. A man called Harry is escorted from his room by two sinister male attendants and forcibly plunged into a bath full of water. A quotation from 1896 informs us that Turkish baths were used in the treatment of mental disorders.
A few pages later, we meet Harry Cane as a younger man – orphaned but comfortably off, with a nervous disposition and a speech impediment. His closest companion is his younger brother, though the two aren’t remotely alike. For gregarious Jack, life is one big boy’s own adventure. For stammering Harry, it’s a minefield of potential embarrassments. Gale illustrates the difference between the two boys through their choice of sweethearts, sisters Georgina and Winifred Wells. Georgina is fearless, while Winifred dreams of being invisible. Taking pity on her, Harry resolves to make her his wife.
Theirs isn’t the most passionate of romances, but marriages have survived on less. And we soon learn that shy Winifred isn’t all she seems. A line from EM Forster’s Maurice emphasises Gale’s main theme: “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.” Winifred is a woman bound by social convention to deny herself the man she truly loves. As for Harry, his true nature is first hinted at by the fact that he enjoys poetry and isn’t fond of sport.
His own inner life is no less dramatic. Constrained by the straitjacket of a wife and child, Harry indulges in “fantasies of being liberated by catastrophe. War would descend around him, or revolution, plague, earthquake, tidal wave, something elemental and huge that would shatter all certainty and stability and leave him suddenly, dizzyingly free”. When the catastrophe comes, it’s in the form of a handsome, hairy-bodied man, the threat of blackmail and a sudden escape to Canada, where Harry’s journey of self-discovery continues in a place called Winter.
Gay literary allusions abound. There are references to the Wilde trial and more than a hint of Forster. “Men can’t live together like a married couple,” Harry’s lover tells him at one point. “It’s grotesque.” But at heart, this is an intensely personal book. Gale was inspired by a true tale from his own family history, and the depth of feeling shows. It’s one gay man reaching out to another across a century of social change, and his most powerfully moving novel yet.