Sunday, 25 October 2015

Post 20: A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

My reading has sped up of late...must be the football season!  While the boys spend many units of 90 minutes glued to the not-so-small-screen in the now-entitled Man-Room, I am free to pursue more civilised recreation.

Half term is upon us, and I have cunningly given essays to be completed over this period rather than have them to mark!  I am hoping that such a plan will give rise to more reading and writing time.  I was reading the author Q&A with Patrick Gale at the end of his novel, A Place Called Winter  and he writes of his practice of "daily walks with [his] dogs..walk[ing] through one landscape with [his] head ..full of another."  So maybe I need a canine to kick start my writing career...?!  Not sure that will meet with hubby approval though.

That Patrick Gale is absorbed by the landscape and characters of his books as he walks and lives his daily life is not a surprise to his readers. In my view, he definitely shares top ranking with my other favourite, Kate Atkinson as one of the best contemporary novelists; Gale evokes character with empathy and tenderness.  He is equally good at portraying men and women and he finds hope in the muddle of humanity. And I think this is the key for me.  He is positive about human experience.  He does not shy away from conflict or difficulty but he allows compassion and tenderness to drive his characterisation.

And so to the nitty-gritty of his latest novel: A Place Called Winter is, in some ways, a departure from his previous novels (and, yes, I've read them all!).  The protagonist is Harry Cane, who was Patrick Gale's mother's grandfather! The plot is weaved around uncertainty as to his character, and mystery as to why anyone would take up the lifestyle offered by Canadian emigration and settlement in the early years of the twentieth century. And so Gale makes his magic.

Harry Cane is a likeable character, somewhat foppish and naive.  A legacy from a wealthy but distant father ensured that he and his brother, Jack were well provided for.  The contrast in the brothers is evident.  Jack, though equally privileged, has drive.  He studies and becomes a veterinary surgeon, never dependent on his inheritance.  Harry, on the other hand, never works.  He spends his day walking, reading the paper and at his club.  He is somewhat at a loss, and where we might despise such vacuity, we recognise his dissatisfaction with his lot, and empathise with his inability to see a route out.  When he meets a kindred quiet soul in Winnie, marries and becomes a father, it seems as though his role might be more clear.  On the contrary, he retains the leisured lifestyle of before, merely taking the pram with him on his daily walks!

As always... no plot spoilers, but you need to know that Winnie, whilst a delightful wife, has confessed on their honeymoon to loving another man.  Their marriage then, is at best, a good friendship. Meanwhile Harry has stumbled into acknowledging that love comes in varied forms, and he surprises himself when he finds attraction and satisfaction in secret liaisons with Hector Browning.

And so the novel, on the one hand, is about exploration of identity in a society where homosexuality was a criminal offence, but it is more than that.  It is also the discovery of strength and resilience as Harry moves from the comforts of a married home, to the more communal existence with Winnie's family and then onto a stark and punishing year in Canada with the Jorgensens where he learns how to farm in a landscape far removed from England's green and pleasant lands. The rather soft, soppish character is formed by this landscape and energised by the physical work. He becomes a man with purpose and determination. This determination sees him leave the safety of the Jorgensens and create his own homestead on a plot of land in a place called Winter.

Interspersed with short chapters from a rehabilitation centre for those diagnosed with mental illness of some sort, Gale maintains the tension in the novel and the driving force of the plot.

The sum total is a loving, compassionate story where strength of character is the dominating force. Harry is transformed through circumstance, but also through exposure to great characters.  Jack, Winnie, Petra and Paul are all beautifully evoked and influence Harry in his journey into whom he becomes. And, somewhat delightfully, Gale manages to draw a protagonist who, though he develops in strength and character, remains a little naive and retains a little fragility.  In that, he represents us all.

And if I haven't done enough to convince you that I'm a bit of a fan... I'm going to let you see my signed copy of the book.  For those of you who know me well, you will be not at all surprised, that the book has been thoroughly read with absolutely no crease to the spine.  This book, my friends, is not for lending!

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