This novel gets off to an exceedingly ambitious start. In the opening pages a young man, previously paralysed in a rugby accident, commits suicide by taking some drugs he has bought over the internet. He makes sure the local priest is with him when it happens. It’s hard to imagine a bolder – or more depressing – opening to a story. It’s a gamble, and one which needs to pay off big to make a novel succeed.
Patrick Gale returns to the Cornwall familiar to readers of his best-known novel, Notes from an Exhibition. It’s a reassuring but complicated place, the village of Pendeen, where everyone’s lives are interwoven by ties which suffocate as often as they comfort. As the narrative zigzags back and forth between episodes in the lives of people surrounding Barnaby, the priest, in the present day he has been labelled the Vicar of Death – “who had done nothing to help a young man dying”. There are gasps at the inquest when Barnaby admits that he administered the last rites rather than call an ambulance.
Meanwhile, as Nuala, the mother of the dead man, tortures herself by sleeping in her son’s bed, Barnaby is haunted by a strange local figure of pity, Modest Carlsson, or Maurice Carver as he used to be known before his prison sentence. Carlsson raped a young girl in his former life as an English teacher and has changed his name, having served his sentence. Having tried to bury that life, Carlsson has become obsessed with Barnaby and the religious conversion he represents. He is a dangerous and menacing figure, whose cartoon-like qualities are at least tempered with a dose of playful irony.
If this were not difficult enough, Barnaby faces a rebellion by his mentally fragile adopted son who has written an obscene message across the church. And Barnaby’s wife, Dorothy, has problems of her own. Have the two of them ever really recovered from the fertility problems she had and the memory of a stillborn child?
It’s hard to do justice to Gale’s lightness of touch in the re-telling: these characters fit together perfectly and something about his ease of manner allows him to flit between one time frame and another. There is a lot going on but it’s all important and interwoven. It helps that Gale’s understanding of people is deep but simple: “They were not people who touched.” And he has a lovely deftness when he’s describing things like the setting up of a Facebook group called We Love Father Barnaby’s Power of Prayer. “‘You’ve already got four thousand likes. Four thousand!’ Barnaby had no idea what she meant.”
It’s very important that Barnaby is not a saint. (“For some years after his affair, Barnaby descended into a self-made hell.”) And we love him all the more for it. Gale gently balances a complicated historical jigsaw and a discussion of what it means to be a good person. There is a moral at work here: “Please don’t feel you always have to be good.” Luckily the novel doesn’t obey the moral. A heartfelt, cleverly constructed read.