Book review, Literary criticism

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

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British writer, Patrick Gale

This is a very different book, Gale’s latest, from his other work which have usually been an insular look at a group of people in a localised area, usually a small Cornish community. A Place Called Winter is epic in its geography, historic in its time and language, and romantic in its tone. If you had to write a précis of this book it would read something like a historical romance, complete with abandonment of wife and family, a journey across the ocean to a strange and inhospitable land, the finding of love in the most unlikely place, a world war, murder, insanity, tragedy, and a villain of truly despicable proportions, but Gale avoids all the possible clichés that would otherwise render such a story fit only for the sensational shelves of suburban bookshops patronised by retired ladies.

“I didn’t decide, ‘Now for an historical novel!’ Rather I found myself more and more possessed by the material suggested by the fragments of my great-grandfather’s story,” and Gale has been reported many times as saying that for the purposes of fiction, and to account for surprising decisions from his ancestor’s known but sketchy life, he ‘turned’ his great-grandfather gay. This is not surprising for Gale readers, as Gale, an out gay man, writes often and well about sexuality. However “The great challenge in this novel was to write about sexuality while inhabiting the head of a man who realistically would not have had anything like the psycho-sexual vocabulary we take for granted now.” Indeed, in his first homosexual experience, which he, Harry Cane, subconsciously seeks out under the guise of a remedy for his stuttering from a handsome, but opportunistic actor and speech therapist, says, when it is obvious what is going to happen and without any stutter at all, “I have absolutely no idea what to do.”

Once his affair is discovered by a kind but firm brother he is forced to avoid a family scandal and possible imprisonment, and flees to the wild cold west of Canada where he is befriended, then abused, but finally set up by a land agent next to a shy and reclusive brother and sister pair, there for their own reasons of displacement. It is here, near a place called Winter, that he discovers what life, love, sacrifice and family really mean. Plot points of self-realization, murder and reunion are described in unsentimental terms and even the climatic act of …. No; no spoilers here.

For all of Gale’s extolling his attention “on the psychology and emotional life” of his characters I found A Place Called Winter, although enjoyable and sustaining, not as rewarding as his other works that focused on a domestic band of rural characters dealing with each other, and more importantly, themselves. The Cornish landscape, both emotional and geographic, he knows well and writes about it with, insight, force and understanding, while such considerations in A Place Called Winter are a little overshadowed by the grandeur of the plot. However, there is a lot to gain from this book; it’s probably the most commercial of his works and one that will gain him a new and, hopefully, loyal readership. He’s prolific: this is his 17th work and I eagerly look forward to what next he has to offer.

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