Reviewed by Annabel
I took this novel on holiday to Somerset with me. We were renting a barn in one of the villages next door to Weston-Super-Mare, where Eustace, the protagonist of Patrick Gale’s new novel grows up. However, we only went into WSM the once: the tide was way out, exposing the estuarine mud stretching beyond the end of the pier. Beyond the ever circling sea gulls on the promenade, it was the kind of unshowy seaside town that is now a dormitory to its big city neighbour upstream, and less glamorous than some of the resorts down the coast from the river mouth.
Gale begins in London though with the fifty-something Eustace as he is embarking on building a new relationship with Theo whom he’s met online. They’ve Skyped and plan to meet finally.
Nothing about his meeting of Theo was promising: Theo was twenty years younger, he was in the army and he was pretty. Pretty would normally have put Eustace off – he tended to be drawn to men with rough edges, evidence of wear and tear, a bit of heft or receding or departing hair. He had always found prettiness poignant, doomed as it was to pass, and outright beauty utterly daunting. […] However the desert camouflage and boots, the occasional sweat patch or glimpse of an enormous and unambiguous gun about his person seemed to balance out Theo’s puppyish looks.
However, Eustace has been diagnosed with cancer. The treatment will be strong radiation, delivered over a couple of days in a lead-lined room. And everything he takes into the room must stay there, hence the book’s title, which is also a metaphor for Eustace’s life growing up, as he moves from one scenario to another.
One constant is Eustace’s love of playing the cello, and Gale takes us back to his childhood in WSM and his meeting with Carla Gold who will be his teacher and mentor. Eustace lives with his parents in an old peoples’ home which they run. He’d always assumed he was an only child, until one of his grannies told him of his twin sisters who’d died. His mother tried him on the clarinet, but it wasn’t for him; it was when she took him to a recital by Carla, a professional cellist who’d moved down from London, that he fell for the instrument. Luckily, she was taking a few pupils, and a new episode in Eustace’s life begins.
However, money worries loom, and Eustace must leave his posh prep school and go to the local comprehensive. He’s finding it hard to fit in, beginning to realise that he is different, but he makes friends with the ebullient Vernon who affects not to care what anyone thinks about him.
Between Vernon and his cello lessons, Eustace has a buffer from the problems of his parents – for a while. When Carla has to move, she relocates to Bristol, where she moves in with her accompanist and his partner. They find a way for Eustace to continue with his lessons, and he will take the train there with his mother, often stopping overnight. Meeting Ebrahim and Louis he begins to realise that his differentness is because he is gay too, and the two men prove to him that it’s OK. Louis and Eustace talk over cooking dinner:
“Are we your first gay couple?”
“Well, apart from the obvious, we’re no different to other couples. Sooner or later it’s just domesticity, you know?”
Gale has populated this novel with wonderful characters. Eustace is such an engaging protagonist. His friends, from Vernon as a teenager, to Naomi whom he meets at cello school and stays a friend for life, are full of life. Carla, Ebrahim and Louis present a creative, Bohemian, but also in the case of Louis, a grounding influence on young Eustace, helping to shape him into the man he becomes. Eustace’s relationship with his parents is different, strained and complex, especially with his mother who is having her own identity crisis.
Gale plays the cello well himself, so those with a musical background will relish the detail he is able to put into his text. There is a lot of music in this novel, however, Gale really portrays brilliantly on the page how the act of playing affects the player. They say that playing an instrument is like a work-out for the brain, firing up more areas of the cortex than virtually any other activity, and that comes through in this novel, especially in the cello school chapters.
This novel is a wonderful blend of coming of age story, small-town childhood, friendship and finding oneself, bound up with a love of music. Gale writes with sensitivity and humour to make Take Nothing With You a delightful and engaging read which I heartily recommend.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Patrick Gale, Take Nothing With You (Tinder Press, 2018), ISBN 9781472205339, 362pp., hardback.
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