Lenny is “a perfectly unremarkable 20-year old who just happens to be in a wheelchair”. He’s there because of a rugby accident and he doesn’t want to live any more. So he kills himself, in front of a parish priest.
It’s a calm, unflinching, shocking opening chapter. Where does a novelist go from there? If he’s Patrick Gale, he goes on to the reverberations of such a death among the friends, families and enemies of both men, in the gaunt, emblematic West Cornwall of his Notes From An Exhibition.
Barnaby the priest is there only at Lenny’s request. He has no idea what’s about to happen; no way of preventing it. But instantly, even as the sickly memorial shrines of flowers, cards, and candles in jam jars appear on footpaths, a loathsome campaign of vilification begins.
Looping backwards and forwards across six decades of lives, and set in an intimately understood landscape of chapel, mine pits, tenacious farms and tenacious people, grey stone and grey Atlantic, this is a narrative of several deaths: chosen but jolting; medicated and impersonal; televised in “horrible beauty”.
It’s also a story of reconciliations and the varied forms of love.
A son says goodbye to an estranged father; a young man establishes wary relationships with God (religion, considered, accepted or rejected, threads the biographies of most characters). Obsession, devotion, transformative and crippling love all feature.
There are wonderful moments: Lenny’s ashes sent arcing out over the sea inside a sky-rocket; his mother and aunt pillaging the floral tributes; priest and wicked stepmother getting agreeably boozed together; an utterly beautiful, tissues-compulsory betrothal at the end.
And there are splendid characters, continually shifting into new perspectives. Barnaby, physically slight but morally stalwart; the father who is “one of Nature’s PE teachers”; the devious, ruined creature who seeks only to ruin others; the resolute farm girl first drawn to her man in the cow yard; the gay brother from California and his art-dealer spouse.
Gale’s writing is mature, poised, textured; you trust him from the first page. He searches his people compassionately yet forensically. His rendering of human emotions is near-consummate: there’s nothing he won’t confront; nothing from which he fails to mine richness.
One of the very best from the West.