Book of the week : A Perfectly Good Man - Patrick Gale

“Do you need me to pray for you now for a specific reason?” “I’m going to die.” “We’re all going to die. Does dying frighten you?” “I mean I’m going to kill myself”

Father Barnaby Thomas, the charismatic, indefatigable local priest, whose enduring service has made him a popular member of his Cornish community,  is called by 20- year-old parishioner, Lenny Barnes, to be a witness as he takes his own life, no longer wanting to exist in his paralysed state, caused by a rugby accident. Barnaby has no idea what’s about to happen; no way of preventing it

It’s a calm, unflinching, shocking opening chapter. Where does a novelist go from there? If he’s Patrick Gale, he goes on to the reverberations of such a death among the friends, families and enemies of both men, in the gaunt, emblematic West Cornwall of his A Perfectly Good Man

But instantly, even as the sickly memorial shrines of flowers, cards, and candles in jam jars appear on footpaths, a loathsome campaign of vilification begins. The death causes aftershocks that ripple through the life of the vicar and questions are raised about whether he really has been as good as his dog collar would have people believe.

Though Lenny′s death is publicly mourned, the tragedy continues to wound those closest to him, and its reverberations seem to threaten a fissure between the Parish and its inhabitants. And yet Lenny′s death is simply Pendeen and Morvah′s most visible misfortune: beneath the surface of the parish newsletter, in the life of Barnaby′s wife Dorothy, in that of his son Jim, in that of their neighbours Modest Carlsson and Nuala Barnes, and in particular in the life of Father Barnaby himself, lies vast, inarticulate sadness

The wonderfully etched personal stories of his wife Dorothy, his children and lover show their lives may not be as happy as they appear. Scuttling behind these personal stories is Barnaby’s nemesis, the sinister Modest Carlsson, a convicted sex offender.

The book is a marvel of strongly hewn characterisation, surprising revelations and is wonderfully evocative of rugged and bleak West Cornwall

Looping backwards and forwards across six decades of lives, and set in an intimately understood landscape of chapel, mine pits, tenacious farms and tenacious people, grey stone and grey Atlantic, this is a narrative of several deaths: chosen but jolting; medicated and impersonal; televised in “horrible beauty”. It’s also a story of reconciliations and the varied forms of love

A son says goodbye to an estranged father; a young man establishes wary relationships with God (religion, considered, accepted or rejected, threads the biographies of most characters)

Obsession, devotion, transformative and crippling love all feature

There are wonderful moments: Lenny’s ashes sent arcing out over the sea inside a sky-rocket; his mother and aunt pillaging the floral tributes; priest and wicked stepmother getting agreeably boozed together; an utterly beautiful, tissues-compulsory betrothal at the end

And there are splendid characters, continually shifting into new perspectives. Barnaby, physically slight but morally stalwart; the father who is “one of Nature’s PE teachers”; the devious, ruined creature who seeks only to ruin others; the resolute farm girl first drawn to her man in the cow yard; the gay brother from California and his art-dealer spouse

Gale’s writing is mature, poised, textured; you trust him from the first page. He searches his people compassionately yet forensically. His rendering of human emotions is near-consummate: there’s nothing he won’t confront; nothing from which he fails to mine richness

A Perfectly Good Man - one of the very best from the West

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May 14, 2012

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