Beautifully crafted novel, set in England and Canada, about the love ‘which dared not speak its name’ in Edwardian times.
Patrick Gale is in many ways quite an old-fashioned writer – and I mean that only positively. He has the virtues of constructing narratives, shaping the trajectory of the whole story beautifully, paying attention to both detail and the wider picture, writing rich, complex characters who are not just ciphers, but have the contradictions and ambiguities of real people. And he takes due care with his use of language. He writes like a craftsman, and you realise his skill only on reflection because, as a reader, you are not tripped up by either something too ornate or something too superficial or clichéd.
He is not a writer who is trying to show-off his brilliance or do incredibly shocking ground-breaking things with his fiction (and foundering because apart from the single ground breaking trick there was nothing at the heart of the book) Instead, he does that utterly absorbing thing of laying bare, by increments, the minds and hearts of his characters.
This is done with a lot of warmth. I suspect Gale is someone who views humanity with kindness, flawed though humankind may often be.
This particular novel is set in Edwardian England, before the First War, and then moves to Canada, ending just after the end of the First World War.
His protagonist is Harry Cane, a kindly, generally financially fortunate public school educated man. Cane has no particular vocation (unlike his younger brother Jack who becomes a vet) and because he has ‘a portfolio’ has no need to earn. He is also someone who is rather introverted and shy.
Harry and Jack (very much driven by Jack’s desires) court a pair of sisters. Jack and his chosen sister are an extrovert, sparkly match, as are Harry and equally reserved and sensible Winnie.
Harry and Winnie, however, have come together with kindly real affection and friendship between them, but no passion. Winnie, in fact is still in love with a man her class conscious family thought ‘beneath her’ And, to his shock and surprise Harry finds himself attracted by an actor. This takes place a few years after the Oscar Wilde ‘scandal’ was the focus of prurient, salacious disgust.
The threat of blackmail and public disclosure, combined with a poor investment leave Harry with the only ‘decent’ option, to avoid bringing shame to his own and his wife’s family, that of emigration, to Canada, recruiting at that time for homesteaders, wheat-farmers.
The story is not just a simple linear narrative, however, because its beginning is in Canada, in an asylum which seems to be focused on (for the time) more humane ways of treating what seems to be ‘deviance’ Harry has come here, after some time spent in a previous institution where the inmates were treated with more predictable brutality.
In many ways A Place Called Winter (the isolated part of the Canadian prairies where city dweller Harry Cane learns how to live close to, and sustained by, the land) is a love story – but not just one kind of love. Gale shows relationships which may be loving through friendship but fail to work as sexual relationships. He is not a ‘proselytising writer’ who demonises or elevates sexual relationships because of their orientation. Instead, Harry (and others) have particular relationships which work, or do not work, because of the individual characters involved with each other.
There is a very strong sense of place and time in this book. Gale explores race, class, sex, emancipation, the aspirations of frontier men and particularly frontier women, the relationship between the white settlers and the Cree Indians whose lands are being taken, and the dynamics of relationships which are about violence, domination and control, as well as those which are mutual and loving.
Gale’s webpage gives a little more background to this story. Harry Cane was his mother’s grandfather, and there was some mystery about him, some family secret. He did indeed become a homesteader in Canada, and was ‘not talked about’, leaving his wife and child in England, that child (Gale’s grandmother) being discouraged from having any contact with her father.
Although the trajectory of the story is not ‘true’ – Gale was unable to really discover what the mystery was, his novelist’s imagination takes some of the known events and characters from family history in this country, and imagines what might have happened, and who Harry Cane might have been
My only minor cavil is with the ending of the book – it is satisfying and has a symmetry, and possibly reflects Gale’s warmth and humanity, but although life can of course be full of strange surprises, I did find this a little too ‘pat’
I received this, with delight as an ARC from the publishers, via NetGalley. I trust the REAL digitised version will have the various formatting blips (mainly a lack of capital case at the beginning of new sentences) corrected.
A Place Called Winter will be published on March 19th