Review by Susan Osborne
It’s nearly thirty years since the publication of Patrick Gale’s first novel, The Aerodynamics of Pork, and for much of that time he was relatively unknown. Richard and Judy’s choice of Notes from an Exhibition for their book club back in 2007 thrust him into the literary spotlight, no doubt blinking a little at its glare. Those of us who’ve been enjoying his well-turned out, humane and absorbing novels for some time could only be surprised that it hadn’t happened before. A Place Called Winter is his seventeenth book – there’ve been a few short stories amongst the novels – and this one is intensely personal: it’s based upon family stories of Gale’s ancestor Harry who fled looming disgrace in England to farm a few bleak acres in Canada.
It opens with a torture scene, or at least that’s how we would describe it in the twenty-first century, but this is the early twentieth and Harry has been found distraught and exhibiting ‘lewd behaviour’ towards a group of soldiers returning from the First World War. He’s being treated in an insane asylum. The rest of the novel is the story of how Harry found himself in such a terrible position, threaded through with scenes from his life at an experimental community being treated by a doctor somewhat more enlightened than those who run Essondale, at least by the standards of the time. The son of a horse-drawn omnibus magnate, Harry was brought up to be a gentleman in accordance with the wishes of his mother who died giving birth to his beloved brother, Jack. Diffident and shy while Jack is confident and outgoing, Harry suffers a stammer which afflicts him when he’s nervous. When their father dies, the brothers are left rich. They both marry – Harry to Winnie with whom he has a daughter, Phyllis. Life as a gentleman leaves him unfulfilled, and the loss of much of his wealth, thanks to an unwise bit of investment, is curiously liberating. Winnie’s mother looks to the voluptuous Pattie, skittering on the edges of respectability as a Gaiety Girl, to bag a wealthy husband and settle the family’s troubles. At a dinner to celebrate her success on the stage Harry meets Hector Browning with whom he discovers the passion missing from his marriage. When exposure threatens, Harry opts to farm in Canada, leaving the family reputation intact. On the long voyage across the Atlantic, he meets Troels Munck, who will profoundly change his life. No longer a pampered English gentleman, Harry will face loneliness, hardship and deprivation, made bearable by love.
A Place Called Winter is a glorious piece of story telling replete with detail anchoring it in time and place: clueless remittance men dispatched to the colonies before they can entirely wreck the family reputation, of whom Harry is emphatically not one; the intriguing list of clothes recommended by a specialist outfitter, much of which proves to be useless apart from the helmet made from ‘Jaeger wool’; and the desperate isolation of homesteads, scattered across an inhospitable, often frigid landscape. Knowledge that the novel is based on family stories told by Gale’s maternal grandmother – Phyllis, the daughter Harry leaves behind – make it all the more compelling. His novels have always been marked by strong characterisation but perhaps it’s the family connection which makes his portrayal of Harry so affectionate, almost tender at times. Even the most polished contemporary novelist can get things horribly wrong when venturing into historical fiction but Gale pulls it off beautifully. A thoroughly absorbing novel which reminds us just how much things can change for the better: while his ancestor suffered torture and virtual banishment for his sexuality, Gale lives happily and openly with his partner. Harry would have been delighted.
Susan Osborne blogs at A Life in Books Never, ever leave home without a book
Patrick Gale, A Place Called Winter (Tinder Press: London, 2015). 9781472205292, 352 pp., hardback.
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