In anticipation of this year's Green Carnation Prize, I thought I'd read a novel I've been meaning to get to for quite a while and which won the prize in 2011. Catherine Hall's novel “The Proof of Love” takes place in the hot summer of 1976. Spencer, a Cambridge University student working on his doctorate in mathematics rides his bike to a rural farming town in north-west Cumbria. He makes an arrangement with a family to stay for the summer in a small outlying building on their property in exchange for providing free labour on the farm. Here we're given vivid details about the labour and sweat involved with this life including a terrifyingly scene where the men have to saw off the horns of a ram. At first Spencer sticks out like a sore thumb in this tightly-knit old-fashioned community. Gradually he becomes accepted, especially after a dramatic fire from which he emerges as a hero. However, he always remains an outsider. Local figures like a snobbish vicar who sees him as an intellectual equal or a bored housewife who tries to seduce him want to use him for their own means. Only the town eccentric, an older lady named Dorothy, and the daughter of the family Alice seem to have no designs on him and see him for the person he really is. Spencer himself remains elusive and evasive about his past, even to the reader for much of the book. He came to this place to leave himself behind. It's somewhere where “he could be somebody entirely different, someone with a certain future, rather than an awkward past.” Like anyone who tries to invent himself wholly anew, his past eventually catches up with him and Spencer has to admit to himself who he really is.
Hall does something in this novel which I haven't experienced since reading Colm Toibin's novel “Brooklyn.” The narrative is compelling and original and wholly enjoyable to read, but I spent much of the book wondering where it's really going. Then, at one point in “The Proof of Love” the dilemma of the protagonist hit me and I was gripped wondering how Spencer's story was going to resolve itself. This has to do with following a particular character's story as they grow and change, but whose past life is at odds with the person that they ideally want to become. Spencer is a man who has been hiding his sexuality, especially after an incident at his university for which he was shamed. Surprisingly he's able to find a man in this rural community who he strikes up a sexual and kind-of romantic relationship with. But this isn't just a novel with the oft-told story about a man struggling with his sexuality. It's about someone who is searching for true belonging in community. Beyond a desire for physical and emotional love from a partner, we also desire to be seen as equal and needed by those who live around us. This is something that's barely been written about in novels that have a gay theme and is, no doubt, one of the reasons why it was selected to win the Green Carnation Prize. Spencer seeks a love that recognizes him as someone wanted and valued for the person he truly is, someone who can give what no one else can.
What Hall captures beautifully is how familiar and comforting small-town life can be, but also how stultifying and rigid it is. Although figures like Mary, the mother of the family Spencer stays with, undoubtably belongs in the community and has a definite place she feels trapped by it. Many of the people in this small town can't ever realize their full potential because of the limited choices available to them. At first, Spencer wants to blend in with the herd and become just another farmer amongst them. He even imitates the local dialect in his speech. But the friendly (if guarded) community which embraces him can just as quickly turn on him when things go wrong. Spencer gradually realizes that he can't become someone totally different and that it might have been better to just be himself. The people who really love and value him do so because they see him, not the person he's trying to be. This is a wise and skilfully written novel that will sneak up on you and pull your heartstrings.