The gentle irony implicit in the title of Patrick Gale’s latest novel sets the tone for the whole book. The familiar phrase exemplifies a peculiarly English irony, implying a quality of goodness that falls far short of perfection and yet, at the same time, is acceptably sufficient. It has overtones of the great child psychologist DW Winnicott’s famous “good-enough mother” – that is, a mother who fulfils, by and large, the basic needs of her child.
The “perfectly good man” in question is Barnaby Thomas, the priest of a rural parish in Gale’s native Cornwall (the Cornish countryside and weather is rendered with reassuring authenticity). We follow his life, spiritual and psychological, from his own perspective but also from that of the various characters who are germane to that life: his wife, Dorothy, who against her own preferences is tellingly morphed by her husband into “Dot”; his daughter, Carrie; his adopted Vietnamese son “Jim”, who, in the course of the book, elects to return to his native name “Phuc”; and a very creepy parishioner who goes by the name of “Modest Carlsson”. In fact, the novel has quite a bit to say about the process of shifting identities; this parishioner’s name has also been subjected to a change, to conceal a former prison sentence for paedophilia.
The novel opens, startlingly, with yet another character, the 20-year-old Lenny. Lenny has been paralysed by a rugby accident and is condemned to a life in a wheelchair. As a result, he has broken off his engagement to a devoted childhood sweetheart and, when we meet him, is preparing to take his life. Barnaby, who supposes he has been summoned for no more than spiritual counselling for a beleaguered parishioner, finds himself, perforce, a witness to the deed. Before calling for help, he spontaneously administers the last rites and then, with a characteristic lack of self-preservation, as a party to the young man’s suicide, surrenders himself into police custody.
The full significance of Lenny’s relationship to his parish priest is not revealed until much later in the novel, which is structured in such a way that we not only jump from one character’s consciousness to another but also move within those individuals’ histories, back and forth in time. This is a bold and highly effective technique. The non-linear disclosure of character and motive places the reader somewhat in the position of the psychoanalyst – witnessing at one moment the middle-aged vicar struggling with a withering faith and later, at the end of the book, that faith’s foundational moment in childhood.
The same technique brings us close to Dot: the domestic tragedy of her child-bearing failures, its consequences for the intimacy of her marriage and the concomitant decision to adopt a Vietnamese orphan. Gale sensitively unravels the ripple effects of this apparently worthy decision, on Dot but also on the boy himself and his lumpen but loyal sister. Enmeshed with all this is our developing understanding of the vile Modest Carlsson, whose sinister fascination with Barnaby is an unrecognised catalyst both of Lenny’s birth and Dot’s untimely death.
What Gale does so well is to delineate the unpremeditated spider-web consequences of actions, most particularly those where the intentions are apparently perfectly “good”. The unfolding nightmare for all the family of the consequences of adopting are exquisitely and painfully documented. Phuc, returning to his native identity, turns on his adoptive parents and country, and escapes into alcoholism and drug abuse. This could be clichéd, but is saved by Phuc’s utterly convincing retreat into a saving relationship with a much older woman, whose children he helps and befriends. None the less, he remains unable to restore a loving relationship with his adoptive father who, again convincingly, cares more passionately for his adopted son than for his flesh-and-blood daughter.
The strength of this novel lies in its capacity to convey ordinariness authentically: ordinary love, ordinary failure, ordinary belief, ordinary, everyday tragedy, which of course in its particular manifestation is never “ordinary”. Gale is a writer whose very facility makes him an easy read. This can mean that his subtle moral and psychological insights can be overlooked, which is a pity, as most of us – for better or worse – lead just such ordinary lives. He is also skilled at creating intimacy between a character and the reader. By the end of the novel, we feel we really know Barnaby, warts and all, and his wife and children, and our sympathies for them are not unlike our sympathies for ourselves leading our own imperfect lives. This is not to imply that Gale cannot also hint at the sublime. The final chapter left me with a lump in my throat because it so beautifully captures the shining, vulnerable promise of childhood.