Mother’s Boy is a tender, evocative retelling of the life of the poet Charles Causley based, as Patrick Gale tells us in his author’s note, on diaries, papers and poems. Gale writes that he has “shamelessly used fiction and conjecture to fill the gaps in stories that history and discretion had left blank”. The period covered is from 1914, when Causley’s parents meet, to 1948, when the poet returns from wartime service to live with his widowed mother Laura and teach in a local school.

In sections with headings such as “Teignmouth 1914” and “Penny Buns 1921”, the story of Charles’s childhood in Launceston, Cornwall is told as a sequence of life-changing events viewed in close-up, some minor, all important: there is his father’s puzzling death from tuberculosis; the thrill of swimming in the sea for the first time; the embarrassment of wearing the wrong kind of swimming trunks; a knockabout English poetry lesson at school; a nativity play performed in one of the local churches where young Charles is familiar with the “gravy yard” and the statue of “Mary Magda Leeny”. Home life consists of shopping and cooking – oxtail, pig’s liver, rabbit pie – and the endless chores of cleaning and laundry, while Charles plays in the street, does his piano practice and visits the local library. The teenage Charles sees Launceton as “a small-minded interfering place”, but it later becomes the source of longing when he joins the navy in 1941 and familiar things give way to the dangers of life at sea.

War brings new experiences – seasickness, mess room clamour, the noise and smells of air attacks, a constant awareness of death – while Laura, stalwart and fond, suffers rationing, difficult evacuees and the fear of losing her son. Charles’s wartime service ends with the terrible pageant of the Japanese capitulation in 1945, the British troops lined up to witness the Instrument of Surrender signed in fountain pen on a document covered in ornate script. Throughout the novel, train journeys, views from the cliffs of blue skies, sand and sea suggest a wider world. The practicalities of daily life are also contrasted with another realm, of music and poetry. Charles’s “search for his true self” is unfulfilled. He knows that he is different and that his intense feelings for his fearless childhood friend Joe, and then for the fellow sailor Cushty, who saves his life, are part of “this thing he would not name even to himself”. Laura worries that “he didn’t like women very much and that it might be her fault”.

Perspective is important. A fine description of low tide at Polzeath – “The receding tide had left hard little ridges in the sand like the furrows in a field and it was tricky to see how breaking waves could leave behind an effect so delicate and regular” – is reflected in Charles’s feeling of escape when crossing the Tamar, as well as in his view from the decoding room at the top of Signals Tower in Gibraltar. Laura’s difficult evacuees are refugees from the different worlds of Hackney and Limehouse, while the American GI camps on the Cornish coast are racially segregated and sometimes violent, and the POWs part of a new kind of community. Nights with a sexually confident companion in a hotel in Liverpool and a moving production of Twelfth Night at the Playhouse do not have the same force for Charles as his nostalgia for “not home precisely, but for the distinctive smell of boot polish, cheese and apples”. Patrick Gale’s descriptions of the power of ordinary things in two very different lives make Mother’s Boy a moving biographical tribute.

Lindsay Duguid is a freelance writer

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