This is Patrick Gale's 16th book of fiction, and second collection of stories, following Dangerous Pleasures in 1996. For his long-standing fan base, as well as recent converts through the Richard and Judy-featured novel Notes from an Exhibition and this year's The Whole Day Through, it provides further evidence of Gale's stylistic deftness, insight and wonderfully eclectic range of interests.
The opening tale, "The Lesson", plants us in familiar territory its gardening housewife protagonist living both in Cornwall (as Gale now does) and as spouse of a prison governor (Gale grew up in Winchester, where his father was governor, which informed his novel Friendly Fire). As ever, Gale finds a new slant. Discontent begins with Jane's "dreams of anonymous city life in which she walked down streets so bustling with women, all of them better dressed and longer-legged than her, that she felt blissfully eclipsed." She develops a sudden devotion to fishing, taught from an unusual hand.
Even as rural life and perspectives dominate, other stories consistently tease out fresh territory. "Obedience", a suspense story, is thoroughly Cornish, if unexpectedly, and winningly, set among dog-training classes. "The Dark Cutter" concerns tragedy at a cattle farm. "In the Camp" details the Nietzschean will-to-power of an 11-year-old Aryan at a naturist retreat.
"Cookery" finds gay man and cookery enthusiast Perry's discretion concerning his sexuality being manipulated by his married brothers, as they expect this "eunuch with a way with sauces" to take in their debilitated, but bullying father. Perry must find a recipe by which to exact revenge.
The one foreign story, "Petals on a Pool", is a hilarious account of an overlooked authoress accepting a free trip to the Bali Book Festival, offered her in error, only to discover that "massage seemed to be playing a greater part in the festival" than literature. There's a chilling yet funny portrayal here of the unstoppable inroads made by celebrity culture into literary festivals, in the formidable form of a Chinese cable-show hostess-turned-books "expert", who may know just enough of every author's PR releases to get by, but can readily outrun her personal trainer.
There's generic variety too. "Fourth of July, 1862" details an afternoon spent by the Liddell sisters, Alice (of Wonderland fame) and Rhoda. "Saving Space" and "Hushed Casket" breathe new life into the ghost story. When "Making Hay" returns us to Cornwall, we may feel that Maudie, a grandmother in a retirement home who bewitches her grandchildren with a tall tale about their father, could be speaking for Gale himself when she reveals: "The trick is to spike the narrative with just a seasoning of solid, agricultural fact."
One quibble: Gale's last novel was simultaneously published in hardback and paperback. Given British publishers' notorious lack of faith in the short-story market, it seems bizarre of Fourth Estate not to have repeated the trick with Gentleman's Relish, though it's worth every penny as it stands.
Richard Canning's 'Brief Lives: E.M. Forster' will be published by Hesperus next month