Book Review: A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

Posted: July 6, 2012 by Dawn Robinson in book review, fiction, novel review

Is the subtext of Patrick Gale’s Cornish set novel “A Perfectly Good Man” a not quite good enough man, a merely adequate man, whose undoubtedly good intentions always lead to complex, unforeseen consequences?

The story tells of a man’s struggle with faith, marriage and yes, morality, which are inextricably bound together. It’s not an easy story to get to grips with, pulling in various developmental strands, which permeate the narrative along the way (rather like life) but it is somehow compulsive. While it wouldn’t be true to say I couldn’t put it down, I was quite keen to pick it back up again, especially as the characters, who develop in a non-linear way, took some time to get to know.

A more disparate group of people one could barely hope to meet. Barnaby Thomas, the plodding vicar, is appropriately named, for it means ‘son of consolation’ . His wife, overweight, and seemingly dull, is stalwart, making little emotional impact, but somehow always there. Her sudden demise is the most exciting thing about her. Then there is the paralysed rugby player who, early in the book, takes his own life, the daughter who only later realises unexpected happiness, and other dysfunctional characters, compelling in their very ordinariness.

Barnaby is a man whose needs are subsumed by those of others, as the complications of modern life unravel. Everyone, it seems, has secrets but they will always out, even the relocated and reinvented paedophile is caught out in the end. The book contains happinesses but largely reflects upon the dulled existences we all lead, mundane and unexceptional, driven by our individual imperfections and flaws. Beneath the veneer of respectability lies dysfunction: Barnaby’s childhood, Phuc’s drug and alcohol ridden preferences, and the dark shadow of the creepy Modest Carlsson, through whom childhood damage is perhaps most heavily alluded to.

Set in the author’s West Cornwall, the story is told from multiple viewpoints, so that our perspective of the key character (hero is way too strong a word) fluctuates wildly. Indeed, so good and dull is Barnaby that when he does show a darker side it is almost the relief that creepy Modest has been seeking. We almost want to see him fall, be more human and less divine. The reader, according to Gale’s own website, becomes God-like, enjoying an informed overview of all the characters.

It’s hard to write well about a good man as wickedness is much more fun and more readily understandable. Gale achieves it through snapshots in time which throw light on Barnaby’s development. Ultimately though, does Barnaby actually feel anything at all? One feels the full force of his childhood repression when Dot dies, an event he deals with matter of factly before moving on.

It is a novel of shifting identities, of individual agency at play even when events happen outside our control. Dorothy, the wife, becomes, against her will, reduced to Dot, minimised in her husband’s eyes and those of her community. Lenny becomes, against his will, paralysed, so that his life is no longer worth living. Modest Carlsson, convicted pedophile becomes vile but acceptable following a prison sentence. The Vietnamese son, Jim, reverts to his original name of Phuc. There is secrecy, suppression and illicitness, self-damage and at times, questionable motives. Daughter Carrie, for example, takes many years to realise her sexual tendencies and preferences. The flawed characters are highly believable, however, because they are so beautifully imperfect; it’s just like real life. At times, the novel can become heavy going with the multitude of twists and turns though.

What is alarming at the end is that it is hard to feel empathy or indeed sympathy for any of the characters; none of them, except perhaps Lenny, manages to draw one’s pity, and perhaps Alice, Barnaby’s lively, outgoing, adventurous sister, the one flicker of light in the book, destined for an early and sticky end. There is almost no hope for a happy outcome and certainly no expectation of such, as the characters continue to live their lives along the same fault lines unable to traverse the wide gulfs between them. But others disagree with my final analysis. Some have found the final chapter uplifting and enlightening. I merely found it appropriate to the rest of the book.

  1. Pete says:

    Sounds like a realistic tale with a lot more shade than light – perhaps lives are like that, or perhaps existence is better understood when dimly lit. The crippled rugby player, sadly, brings to mind the chap from Worcester in 2008 – I wonder if the novel addresses other topical issues, and if so, in an impartial or committed way ? How much local detail is there I wonder, e.g. do Geevor ex-mine, or the mural’d interior of St Just church, or the coast feature ? I’ve not read the novel, or any others by Patrick Gale alas, but tis interesting that even though it appears more character-driven than plot-driven, the characters are not found sympathetic. Sailing pretty close to the wind, a brave but risky direction to the story it sounds like then. Good picture you painted for us there Dawn – thanks ! 🙂

  2. Dawn Robinson-Walsh says:

    Thanks, Pete. ‘More shade than light’ is rather well put. Difficult for me to answer questions on the local Cornish detail. People seem to think Gale generally writes very solidly about Cornwall but my area is east not west Cornwall, so my knowledge of Geevor and St Just is scanty rather than in any depth, I’m afraid. I didn’t feel I especially knew the place any better after reading the book. Rather, it could have been anywhere in the isolated south west, though the churches were described in some details. Lots of events do actually happen in the novel but I felt they were used very much to illustrate the development of Barnaby’s character rather than as events in themselves. I may well be wrong and stand to be corrected; ultimately, I suspect we all interpret literature from unique standpoints of relevance to us at the time, and I seem to have been hung up in the intricacies of character rather than plot……….but your response is appreciated! Anyone else read it?

  3. Lee says:

    Some interesting comments there Dawn, thanks. I wouldn’t worry about comparing East with West Cornwall too much in this particular example – your perception of a general westcountry feel (to paraphrase) is probably far more insightful. Gale, of course, is not from Cornwall and so his perspective may well be one that concertinas westcountry life. As you say, it would be interesting to see someone else’s view on the book too.

  4. […] by Lucy Wood, won the adult fiction category ahead of Rainbows in the Spray, by N.R. Phillips, and A Perfectly Good Man, by Patrick […]

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