Fourth Estate, £16.99. Order for £15.29 (free p&p) from Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030.
A Perfectly Good Man, By Patrick Gale
Jonathan Gibbs reviews books for The Independent and elsewhere. His novel Randall, about the contemporary art world and the fate of the YBAs, is published by Galley Beggar Press. He blogs on this aspect of his writing at tinycamels.wordpress.com
Wednesday 11 April 2012
There's a particular strain of English mildness that carries within it a finely wrought undercurrent of viciousness. It's there in the title of Patrick Gale's new novel, A Perfectly Good Man, which you could either take literally – that Barnaby Johnson, priest to the Cornish parish of Pendeen, is perfect in his goodness – or as a tight-lipped rebuke, that he is adequate at best.
As if to harry us into taking one of these positions, the novel kicks off with what is, for this writer, something of a shock opening. Barnaby is visiting a parishioner, 20-year-old Lenny, who is confined to a wheelchair following a rugby injury. Lenny doesn't want him there for a chat; he wants him there while he kills himself, drinking a sedative bought on the internet. The "goodness" of Barnaby's behaviour, calmly administering extreme unction rather than scrambling for the telephone, is left deliberately ambiguous. It's a foolish reader of Gale's novels who rushes to judge one of his characters: the careful management of our sympathies is what he is all about.
The book continues in a highly erratic manner. Each chapter comes with a title giving a character's name and an age, but as these are arranged anything but chronologically, it takes time to work out exactly when the events occurred. Gale's jumping around in time and perspective is an intricate, circling dance around this central figure of the priest. He acquires a wife, Dorothy, a daughter, Carrie, and an adopted Vietnamese son, but Gale holds off giving him real depth for much of the novel.
Our curiosity regarding Barnaby is given obese form in one Modest Carlsson, a loner obsessed with finding some fault in his priest. He habitually turns up at his most out of the way services, where he is often the entire congregation. For all the slow-burning humanity of the novel, it is striking that Gale has had to concentrate so much malevolence in the figure of Carlsson, whose attempts at doing evil always somehow end up doing good. The book is guaranteed to give the reader a warm glow, but in that there is something Panglossian: the idea that redemption awaits us all, as surely as it does so many of Gale's characters.
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
New era of cheap oil 'will destroy green revolution'
Ukip founder Alan Sked and Nigel Farage 'begged Enoch Powell to stand as a candidate'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant