Fourth Estate £16.99
A Perfectly Good Man, By Patrick Gale
It shouldn't happen to a ... village priest
This novel gets off to an exceedingly ambitious start. In the opening pages a young man, previously paralysed in a rugby accident, commits suicide by taking some drugs he has bought over the internet. He makes sure the local priest is with him when it happens. It's hard to imagine a bolder – or more depressing – opening to a story. It's a gamble, and one which needs to pay off big to make a novel succeed.
Patrick Gale returns to the Cornwall familiar to readers of his best-known novel, Notes from an Exhibition. It's a reassuring but complicated place, the village of Pendeen, where everyone's lives are interwoven by ties which suffocate as often as they comfort. As the narrative zigzags back and forth between episodes in the lives of people surrounding Barnaby, the priest, in the present day he has been labelled the Vicar of Death – "who had done nothing to help a young man dying". There are gasps at the inquest when Barnaby admits that he administered the last rites rather than call an ambulance.
Meanwhile, as Nuala, the mother of the dead man, tortures herself by sleeping in her son's bed, Barnaby is haunted by a strange local figure of pity, Modest Carlsson, or Maurice Carver as he used to be known before his prison sentence. Carlsson raped a young girl in his former life as an English teacher and has changed his name, having served his sentence. Having tried to bury that life, Carlsson has become obsessed with Barnaby and the religious conversion he represents. He is a dangerous and menacing figure, whose cartoon-like qualities are at least tempered with a dose of playful irony.
If this were not difficult enough, Barnaby faces a rebellion by his mentally fragile adopted son who has written an obscene message across the church. And Barnaby's wife, Dorothy, has problems of her own. Have the two of them ever really recovered from the fertility problems she had and the memory of a stillborn child?
It's hard to do justice to Gale's lightness of touch in the re-telling: these characters fit together perfectly and something about his ease of manner allows him to flit between one time frame and another. There is a lot going on but it's all important and interwoven. It helps that Gale's understanding of people is deep but simple: "They were not people who touched." And he has a lovely deftness when he's describing things like the setting up of a Facebook group called We Love Father Barnaby's Power of Prayer. "'You've already got four thousand likes. Four thousand!' Barnaby had no idea what she meant."
It's very important that Barnaby is not a saint. ("For some years after his affair, Barnaby descended into a self-made hell.") And we love him all the more for it. Gale gently balances a complicated historical jigsaw and a discussion of what it means to be a good person. There is a moral at work here: "Please don't feel you always have to be good." Luckily the novel doesn't obey the moral. A heartfelt, cleverly constructed read.
Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins gives rare glimpse of sensitive side with heartfelt open letter to her children penned in case she dies from epilepsy
- 2 Rihanna's Met Gala dress took one Chinese woman 2 years to make, was reduced to omelette meme in 2 seconds
- 3 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
- 4 Frankie Boyle on Scottish independence: 'In the Interests of Unity, F**k Off'
- 5 Florida couple forced to register as sex offenders for having sex on public beach
Penny Dreadful, series 2 episode 1, review: It is still gloriously silly
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
Eurovision 2015: What date and time is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
How the Other Half Eat, Channel 4 - TV review: Swapping food trolleys shows how food and class are closely connected
Noel Gallagher 'cannot wait' to hear Oasis-inspired One Direction album but rants about 'pointless' Tidal and Spotify
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: Post-election 'shambles' looms as 70 per cent of voters say SNP 'should not be able to veto UK government policies'
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils