In 1937 J. B. Priestley was – if not the first then one of the first – writers to use time as a plot point. His play Time and the Conways tells of the decline of a monied Yorkshire family between the wars. Act one is set in 1919 at the birthday party of one of the daughters; act two is set on the same night but in 1937 and we see how far the family and all its members have fallen; and act three continues from act one and we see all the misjudged decisions, wrong turnings, and false expectations that caused it all. It is a tragedy, not just of a family but of Britain as she unwittingly is drawn into war, a war that Priestly predicted; but because the audience knows what happens they are spared any melodramatic sentimentality at the Conway’s future and, instead, are left with the truly tragic knowledge that it is all their own fault, therefore teaching us that our future is all our own fault. Damn it!
By the end of the first chapter of Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man I was gasping at what I had just witnessed, as our hero, the perfectly good man, an Anglican vicar, Father Barnaby Johnson, had just witnessed and could do nothing to stop: a suicide in broad daylight at a kitchen table. Time jumps back twenty years for chapter two and by its end I was misty-eyed at a lonely farm girl who almost became a matinee spinster, and at her sudden and unexpected happiness that she grabbed with her heart and both hands, despite her mother’s selfish interference and her own self-acceptance of a lonely life; so that when she saw Barnaby, finally, and they kissed and kissed again I’m sure I heard an orchestra belting out a soppy Korngold score like anything starring Joan Fontain and Lawrence Olivier: emotional, yes, but not sentimental; there’s no time for that as the next chapter jumps forty years into the future with Barnaby at 60. We know the consequences of everything they see and do. As with Priestley’s time plays Gale reveals outcomes before their gestation which not only spares us sentimentality and underlines the folly of mankind but also provides the reader with a few delicious “Oh yes, of course!” moments. I love those little moments.
Gale’s clever narrative, not only doesn’t follow the linear life of Barnaby Johnson, but rather his life is painted not by what he does but by what effect he has on the people around him: Dorothy, his wife; Lenny, his young, lapsed parishioner; Carrie, his daughter; Phuc (Careful! It’s rhymes with look), his adopted Vietnamese son; Modest, an interfering, totally unpleasant and obese man, to whom Barnaby shows nothing but kindness; James, his gay uncle; and Nuala, his onetime Australian lover. We get to know Barnaby Johnson through his reflection in the lives of these Cornish people. Be assured that I have left out some important information in my descriptions of these characters: I don’t believe in spoilers.
It’s set in Cornwall and in the little parishes north of Penzance, the same location of the previous Gale novel I read and blogged about; and incidentally two characters from that book, Notes from an Exhibition (see my previous post) make an appearance in this one. A neat synchronicity but only because I read these two back to back.
He has a way with the nuanced phrase …”the sisterly happiness she felt for him was borne up on little upwells or erotic regret … she could smell the disappointment of her, a passing sourness, as of stale sweat trapped in a dress sleeve … In a priestly way – all cheekbones and fine feeling – he was handsome, she considered … And there she was in his maths class like a princess sent to a rural comprehensive to learn humility… Even now they weren’t exactly alone because her parents were standing in the porch, like an advertisement for mortgages…she simply preferred to keep her feelings private and as reassuringly compartmentalized as the meticulously size-sorted screws in the trays of her tool box …”
These gems give you little jolts of joy, like finding a $20 note in a pair of jeans you haven’t worn for a while.
Notes from an Exhibition, along with A Perfectly Good Man are now available as ebooks and you can find them here.
Since my literary heroes (at the moment), Colm Tóibín, Tim Winton, and Damon Galgut are not very prolific I’m happy to add Patrick Gale to the list so now I have his whole body of work to explore. I hope you will too.