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Patrick Gale's new novel “Take Nothing With You” is a refreshing new take on a coming of age story. At the beginning we first meet the protagonist Eustace in his later years. At this stage of his life he's begun a promising new relationship with Theo, a fairly senior army officer stationed far away, and, though their connection has progressed from a dating app to regular Skype conversations, they've not yet met in person. But Eustace has also been diagnosed with cancer and needs radiation treatment which requires him to remain in temporary solitude within a lead-lined room where he can take nothing with him that isn't disposable. It's the first example of how the title of this novel resonates so strongly throughout a life marked by stages which require abandoning physical things and one form of identity to progress onto another. The bulk of this tale is concerned with Eustace's childhood and adolescence as he discovers a love of music and other boys. The story poignantly demonstrates the courage that is required to declare your true desires and to express your creativity even if it goes against the grain of the majority. It also shows the importance of role models to foster young people’s creativity and to assist in helping them to grow and flourish.

Eustace discovers a love of playing the cello during his childhood and he’s lucky enough to come under the tutelage of a passionate musician named Carla Gold. She serves as an important mentor in training him to develop his natural skill and passion. But financial pressure and discord in his parents’ marriage creates problems for Eustace in realizing his full potential. Although the story is focused on Eustace I appreciate how Gale takes care to sympathetically refer to the struggles of his parents as well. They face their own challenges and must sacrifice things to move forward in their lives or make compromises. Another example of this is the father of Eustace’s friend Vernon who is struck by a paralyzing illness. Here is another example of someone who must cruelly progress in life without things which feel like an essential part of his identity. I also appreciated how Eustace’s relationship with his mother is depicted in such a complex way. Gale writes some startlingly lines to describe the realms of what remains unknown between mother and son: “He had never seen his mother naked and never seen her bank statements.” Considering the dramatic things which occur in their relationship with each other, I imagine rereading this novel will make reading earlier scenes between them feel even more impactful.

 Detail of a painting from 1671 by Abraham van den Tempel

Detail of a painting from 1671 by Abraham van den Tempel

The story also sympathetically shows Eustace’s sexual development and how he gradually comes to terms with his homosexuality. Two male friends of Carla serve as mentors in a very different capacity, not just in how they educate him about gay culture, but from the fact of their existence living openly as a gay couple. Without this kind of example in his life, Eustace would have certainly found it difficult to imagine relationships other than the ones he forms in his early sexual experimentation with boys only interested in homosexual acts as a form of physical gratification or a power game. It’s also interesting to note how in one section Gale gives a survey and critique of gay fiction at this time of the late 20th century. Writing by Thomas Mann, Gore Vidal, EM Forster, James Baldwin, Gordon Merrick and Edmund White were crucial in openly bringing the stories of gay men into novels, but they had their limitations and only represented a narrow scope of experience: “The men in all these seemed to be uniformly handsome, virile, rich and expensively educated but they came to believe in their right to happiness and the stories ended with them neither punished, unhappily married nor dead. The novels had about them a strain of self-mythologizing breathlessness, full of precious feminine references which confused him.” Gale’s writing feels to me like an additional crucial voice in gay fiction for the way he poignantly describes the varied ways gay men can survive amidst oppression without compromising essential parts of their identities – as he did in his moving novel “A Place Called Winter”.

Beyond the detailed and captivating descriptions of Eustace’s growth as a musician and a gay man, this novel is an evocative account of the experiences of childhood and the different methods we use to piece together how the adult world works in our own way. In one section it describes how Eustace tries to visualize the different counties in England based on a map he had in a game when he was younger. It’s these sorts of references which we mentally go back to in order to make sense of the physical and emotional landscape in front of us. I thoroughly enjoyed this touching and captivating novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPatrick Gale

How would you cope if you were suddenly cast out from your home, family and everything that’s familiar to start a new life from scratch in the wilderness? It’s a terrifying prospect for anyone. This is exactly the position author Patrick Gale’s great grandfather found himself in when, under the threat of disgrace; he was pressured into leaving his family and comfortable life as a gentleman in the UK to start anew as a pioneer farmer in rural Canada. In “A Place Called Winter” Gale fictionally recreates a heart-wrenching tale of tenacity in the face of the unknown using this very personal tale from his family’s history as inspiration. What I’ve always found so mesmerizing about Gale’s writing is how close he makes me feel to his central characters so that their struggles feel entwined with my own. Nowhere have the dilemmas which trouble his character felt more immediately real than in this new dramatic and intimate novel.

Harry Cane is a young man living at the turn of twentieth century London. He has a life of leisure as he subsists solely on the proceeds of his inheritance after his father’s early death. He’s a naturally shy man who suffers from an occasional stutter. But through his gregarious younger brother he meets a woman named Winifred who seems like a natural match that he can marry and settle down with. Things go along companionably for some time, but soon buried passions come to the surface. Gale movingly writes about the way both Harry and Winifred have desires which they’ve had to suppress due to social pressures. Harry believes he can negotiate his way around the scrutiny of the public to satisfy his needs, but when the truth about his actions is uncovered he’s strongly pressured into defecting from his comfortable life or face the social and legal ramifications of exposure.

Under the pretence of seeking his own fortune, Harry sets out for a rural area of Canada where pioneers are offered the chance of securing free land if they inhabit and farm it for three years. Here the story is set rapidly in motion as this vulnerable individual must forge a new life for himself. Practically overnight Harry goes from being an established person in society to a place where “he was an unregarded nothing.” It must take a lot of strength of character for someone who has lived a pampered existence to move to a new country and learn the physically arduous existence of farming. You might think one of the few benefits such a new life would involve is the freedom to live as one wants to in relative solitude. But faced with the dangerous elements of this new land, Harry relies more than ever on being accepted. He finds that “even in such a small and scattered community, it was better to be known a little than to be thought odd and avoided entirely.” The necessity to be a part of and accepted by a community demand that a person is subject to that society’s conventions – at least, on the surface.

Gale cleverly frames his story with descriptions of Harry’s life at a future point when he’s been detained in a psychiatric hospital. Fragments of his life in this institution are scattered throughout the book and it’s only in the later chapters of the book that the reader is made aware of how he ended up at this point. For some time, it feels as if there is no way Gale can reconcile the parallel narratives he’s created. But it’s ingenious the way the stories of Harry’s past and present come together in a way that is so unexpected it made me feverishly read the last seventy pages to find out what happens. Without giving any spoilers, it’s sufficient to say the ending is a tremendous and emotionally-arresting surprise.

The thing which makes this novel especially moving is the way Gale writes about the different ways people were inhibited within society at that time from expressing how they really wanted to live. By considering the diversity of people institutionalized in the mental hospital these issues are brought into sharp focus. This facility isn’t inhabited only by patients with debilitating mental illnesses, but by people who don’t fit the mould dictated by society. There are interesting parallels found here with the mental institution described in the novel “The Morning and the Evening” by Joan Williams which I read recently. Stressed and abused housewives are labelled as “insane” as are transvestites and homosexuals. Native Americans are corralled into specific areas and pressured into not integrating with the farmers who settle around them. Intelligent women who simply have no desire to marry are outcast as are women who are raped or abused. Gale shows the way in which those who don’t conform are persecuted and more importantly the impact this has on how these individuals understand their own identities. It’s remarked that “When a thing has always been forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.” When people are pressured into suppressing aspects of their identities they don’t even know how instinctual behaviour will manifest if allowed to be expressed openly.

Gale delicately portrays how his protagonist Harry struggles to establish a life for himself when forced to abandon everything that’s familiar. Alongside his newfound awareness for how to make a living off from the land, Harry’s psychology changes so that he better understands his own desires and what he wants in order to find true fulfilment. It’s a struggle most people face in less dramatic circumstances and without having to be ousted from everything they call home. Reading about Gale’s carefully rendered portrayal of the time makes me thankful for the considerable freedoms I have to express myself and openly search for what I really want in life. Filled with joy, humour and sorrow, this book probes into what gives us our humanity. In short, “A Place Called Winter” is a novel with a tremendous amount of heart.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPatrick Gale
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