Book review, Literary criticism

A Sweet Obscurity by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic

British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall with his husband farmer. They raise barley and beef. He plays the cello in a string trio, is chair of the Endellion Summer Music Festival, and loves gardening, dogs and nature.

Finally, on page 47, the complicated filial relationships of the four main characters, are explained. Several readings of the first three chapters doesn’t make them clearer, and the introduction of another family with a similar structure only confused matters even more. (I even cheated at the blurb on the back cover) It’s never clear to readers, and neither should it be, who makes these structural decisions, writer or editor, but waiting ’till page 47 is too long. Many readers would’ve given up; I nearly did, but I’m glad I persevered.

A common, and probably over-used, novelistic structure is a brief introduction followed by a major plot point – a birth, death, a prodigal brother, an earthquake – and then the back stories to fill in the gaps; and finally, the consequences that lead to a climax (another plot point or two) and finale. Gale doesn’t really abandon this structure, he stretches it and the long wait for the first plot point is ameliorated by his interesting characters and relationships.

Dido is a 9-year-old girl going on 25. Her upbringing is shared by her aunt, Eliza, Giles, Eliza’s estranged husband, and Julia, Giles’ girlfriend. All three are involved in music: Giles is an impossibly handsome counter-tenor, Julia works for the agency that handles his career, and Eliza is a musicologist who is struggling to complete her doctorate on the Elizabethan madrigalic composer, Trevescan. Dido’s single mother, Hannah, Eliza’s older sister, a wayward but determined woman died in a mountaineering accident well before the action begins. Dido’s father is unknown. They all have eccentricities of dress, self-regard, expectations, failings, and sexual proclivities; they are all in the beginnings, middles or ends of their warm, messy relationships, or planning, or foreseeing new ones; but are all basically good people trying to get along in the world as best they can. A trip to Cornwall, the discovery of a ‘lost’ madrigal, and a broccoli farmer change everything. As a reader, you want them all to find what they are looking for. They deserve to be happy.

Then finally, Gale drops in the first plot point. It isn’t another character, or an event, or an action; it’s a piece of information, something only some of them know. He could’ve plopped it down near the beginning but he saves it for near the end; and once it has hit you between the eyes – it’s something I can guarantee you would never guess – a few little more bombshells are dropped and the webby entanglements of all their lives re-arrange themselves (probably to begin a new cacophony of bumpy attachments); but Gale leaves these wonderful people at the moment of most contentment, or, at least, the promise of contentment, and the reader closes the book with great satisfaction.

The book doesn’t stop there. There is an interview with Gale, and a little essay by Gale himself about the writing of the book: it’s his only work to date based on a dream.

You can buy the eBook here.

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