Patrick Gale (2012) A Perfectly Good Man Fourth Estate, London; 404 pp.; ISBN 978-0-00-744242-3
Patrick Gale is a prolific author and deserves to be more widely read than he is. The early novels are full of quirky characters and display a sense of humour along with an affection for people’s idiosyncrasies. They are fun to read, with intricate plots, comic coincidences and somewhat stereotypical English settings. The first few novels struck me as a modern version of the works of Barbara Pym, but in the past decade or so Gale’s stories have taken a more sombre tone and the characters have become more intense and complex. The locations have shifted to the far west of England, where Gale now lives. Rough Music (2008) and Notes from an Exhibition (2007) are moving, emotionally mature stories that are a world away from The Aerodynamics of Pork, his 1985 debut.
A Perfectly Good Man is set in Cornwall and is a nuanced exploration of family emotions and relationships, but also harks back to the early novels with its somewhat out of the ordinary characters. The novel is arranged in a collage of chapters, each about a character at a particular age. Its fragmented nature reflects the way we often learn about our families and other people. Those more comfortable with a straightforward timeline might be tempted to give up reading – but they should not.
The novel opens with the suicide of Lenny, a twenty year-old who is paraplegic after the collapse of a rugby scrum. His death is witnessed by the local priest, Barnaby Johnson, who surrenders to the police afterwards because he did not call the ambulance early enough. As the story progresses we understand that Barnaby is the man referred to in the title of the book, a good man, sometimes too perfect for those around him, but also full of doubt and harbouring guilt.
Barnaby is married to Dorothy and they have a daughter Carrie and an adopted son Jim who later reverts to his original Vietnamese name of Phuc. Lenny’s mother is Nuala, an Australian pottery artist living in the parish to escape her past. Unlike Lenny, she doesn’t have a religious bone in her body. Shadowing these people like a grim spectre in the background is Modest Carlsson, a single and lonely man with an unpleasant history who takes delight in finding out other people’s secrets then using these to bring down those he envies. It is the only pleasure he has in his miserable life, supplemented by religion and food.
Barnaby is from a family that was once well off, but his uncle James had to sell the family estate and neither Barnaby nor his father ended up with much. However, James did set up a trust to ensure Barnaby would have a good education. Barnaby does not mind living a simple and relatively poor life as a rural vicar, and his family resides on a farm belonging to Dorothy’s parents. The other members of Barnaby’s family feel the pinch of poverty more than he does and there is a hanging but unspoken feeling that Barnaby is seen as a failure.
Barnaby loses his faith in god, but clings to the ritual of the church and focuses on providing support and pastoral care to the community. Phuc becomes estranged after leaving for university and it is only when Dorothy dies that there is some move towards rapprochement between father and son. Carrie remains close to her brother but stays at home and seems destined for a lonely life until love steals under her skin late in the piece.
As the patchwork quilt of the chapters falls into place, the stories and secrets that link all the characters form a neat pattern and we see that Barnaby is less than the perfect man some of his parishioners believe. Yet we never doubt that he is good. Barnaby’s loss of faith and somewhat loveless existence are echoed in the life of his son Phuc, so we see that families over time can both reinvent and repeat the tragedies of their forebears.
By the end of the novel it seems that the main characters will achieve some happiness, and that the loathsome Modest Carlsson has received his come-uppance. The ending might be a bit too formulaic and neat for some, but it is the exploration of emotions, of unspoken desires and unlived lives that gives this novel its strength. In the coda chapter, we see how the eight year-old Barnaby is introduced to seeing god in the living world about him rather than as an abstract being. This brings him a deep contentment. It is very like the exhilaration of his own son at age twelve when Phuc loses faith and, looking at the moonlit countryside, experiences the liberation of his soul.
Barnaby and other believers cling to the habits of religion, but their faith is not tied to them and rests on something more embedded in daily life. The non-believers – the potter Nuala, Phuc, Barnaby’s father and Barnaby’s dead sister Alice – can be hostile or indifferent to religion, but the elements of the world that inspire and please them are little different from those that move the other characters. Both believers and non-believers have to deal with tragedy in their lives as well as experience small joys, and it is their common emotions, their common humanity, which draw them together irrespective of the convictions they hold.
Endnote: readers familiar with Vietnamese might find some points in this novel distracting or annoying. I would reiterate the advice of that literary icon Norman Hudis: ignore them and carry on regardless. The novel greatly outshines any of its minor flaws.