A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale
22 August, 2012
July’s book group choice was A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale. I have never read anything by Gale so was curious to see what kind of writer he is and what story he would deliver. I don’t really read much family sagas now so was a little curious to see how I would fare with this one.
A Perfectly Good Man opens with the suicide of a young man witnessed by his priest. With this catastrophic event, the lives of everyone connected to the young man, Lenny, and the priest, Barnaby Johnson, is cracked wide open as Gale slowly, and with bursts into the past, shows us how life can twist and turn in unexpected ways. This is Barnaby Johnson’s tale; one where we see flashes from his past, the choices he makes, the people and events that propel his life. His wife Dorothy whose married life didn’t turn out as she’d hoped, his adopted son who loses his way, his content, single daughter. His cold father and his dead sister. His parishioners including the creepy stalker Modest Carlsson. All have shaped his life. And yet, does Barnaby really know what he is doing? Do his choices make him a good man even though things may not turn out how they were planned? As events and external factors propel Barnaby’s life towards Lenny’s suicide, can his faith save him?
I was a little disconcerted by the chapters darting between characters and time periods that weren’t necessarily chronological. As you can tell from the summary, it’s not easy to explain the plot either. And yet it worked for me. Gale’s writing style is easy to read and rather beautiful. I didn’t necessarily like all the characters and you didn’t really get into the heads of all of them completely, and yet you were able to grasp their lives, their sadness, their regrets albeit in a fleeting, poignant way.
My favourite chapter was Dorothy’s story about how she and Barnaby fell in love. Brought up on a working farm, she is a practical young woman who always thought she would end up a farmer’s wife until she meets the bookish, charismatic and hesitant vicar who comes to board at their house. All of a sudden, the life which was planned for her seems colourless. Gale tells this part of the story beautifully and leaving me with a soft spot for Dorothy which made her later married life seem so sad.
I was also intrigued by Barnaby’s past, his early privileged and yet austere upbringing punctuated by his scandalous uncle and his flamboyant lover who provided, together with Barnaby’s sister Alice, the only respite in a cold and proper upbringing. As we learn more about Barnaby, we start to question whether his actions were the right ones. Did he think things through? There is no doubt that Barnaby is a good man and yet his life isn’t perfect. Sometimes it seems as though he is the person most poised to see what is going on yet sees the least.
Gale has planned his novel in a clever, cyclical way, tying all the loose ends neatly, some may say, rather too neatly. That was fine by me. However, I found the treatment of the characters rather shallow considering the weighty themes that were being examined here. Suicide, death, faith, drug abuse, social alienation; it’s a lot of heavy stuff. And yet, the novel itself felt light as though Gale was only touching briefly upon them, bringing them up without really exploring them. Maybe this is due to Gale’s writing style, yet I felt it needed more depth in order to really get under the skin of these characters.
So although I enjoyed reading A Perfectly Good Man more than I expected to, I’m left with a feeling of ambivalence. It’s a perfectly good book and I liked Gale’s writing style well enough but his storytelling left me wanting.