As we’re on the subject of Cornwall, I thought I would do a quick review of two books by one of my favourite authors, Patrick Gale, who sets all his books there. As with the other writers I have talked about on this blog, I think his novels work so well because Gale clearly lives and breathes the area that he writes about. I love books that get me just as invested in the setting as the characters. If you have been to Cornwall or live there then you know exactly what he is talking about and he captures the communities and landscape excellently, and if you haven’t, then he goes to great lengths to make sure you can imagine it. While it could be easy to make novels idyllic in such a setting, the themes of these two novels prevent this. I was so drawn into the characters and their lives which I could vividly imagine and believed that people such as these characters really exist, suffer in the same way and face the experiences that they do.
A Perfectly Good Man
At the centre of this novel is the story of Barnaby Johnson, who on the surface should be a perfect man and has a seemingly normal life and regulated. However Johnson is flawed in a number of ways, which the blurb lets you know, but I didn’t suspect how that might be. As these parts of his character were revealed, you are left questioning what is good and bad, what is sinful and how someone can remain a perfectly good man and Gale is able to manipulate your levels of forgiveness and understanding.
I have read similar comments in other reviews because, I am guessing because people are in agreement that he writes different kinds of people so well and captures the unpredictability of life. The novel constantly gives you clues and allows you to see where the novel might be going, but really you can’t predict what the repercussions of character’s actions will be.
My favourite thing about A Perfectly Good Man – the chapters follow a particular character at a certain age but don’t follow a pattern or chronology. This could be confusing, but Gale uses it to demonstrate how life evolves and how different people come together in a community. The plot is built around these various life events rather than characters being controlled by plot.
Notes from an Exhibition
This book is my favourite of the two because it demonstrates even more how Gale is able to write a number of people. I am always impressed when a male writer creates a female character who I really believe in, but he is also able to create a female character who is still at the centre of the narrative despite beginning the novel with her death. On top of this is Rachel’s mental illness which is almost a character of its own, as a presence that lasts throughout the novel. I felt that Gale death with this sensitively and realistically and din’t shy away from how it impacted her whole life as well as everyone she has come into contact with. While commercial fiction about disabilities can have a tendency to concentrate on the impacts upon others and the suffer’s voice can get lost, Gale ensures that Rachel is at the centre of this novel.
Rachel is bipolar and this is coupled with the stability of her Quaker husband who offers her an element of calm in their Cornish home. They have four children who all suffered from their mother’s mental illness and the novel also deals with how this impacts their own behaviour through adulthood. At times Rachel frustrated and angered me but Gale allows you to sympathise with both her and her children as the whole family navigates her highs and lows. I also didn’t feel as though Gale was attempting to generalise bipolar disorder, as it is very clear that this is the story of one family, yet also one I believe many could relate to.
My favourite thing about Notes from an Exhibition – Each chapter starts with notes of Rachel’s artwork from an exhibition which reveals more about her and her mental state at various points in her life. This helps both the characters and reader to uncover many of the mysteries of her life and contrast what the reader learns about Rachel as a mother and wife and how the public perceive her as a critically acclaimed artist.
While the themes of these novels sound, and are quite challenging don’t be put off. They both are still really uplifting novels and I didn’t finish them feeling depressed. I would recommend them to anyone looking for something to really get into when you need something to read on a quiet rainy afternoon on the sofa. You can read my top three holiday reads here or you can read more about Cornwall here