Saturday, 25 August 2012

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

The good man of the title is Barnaby Johnson, a middle-aged Church of England priest with a parish in West Cornwall. The novel opens, though, on the last day of Lenny Barnes's life; Lenny has been paralysed in a rugby accident and, at the age of twenty, has decided to take his own life.  Barnaby is the person he asks to be with him while he takes the drug that will bring about his death.  The novel traces the stories of Barnaby, Lenny and those around them that led to this moment, and follows its consequences for all of them.

Patrick Gale's technique of moving the narrative viewpoint between the characters and shifting it about in time is well-deployed here, dropping in bits and pieces of knowledge, some of which will remain obscure until later in the text, some of which are little unexploded bombs, maintaining tension in a non-linear narrative.  Driving through all this is the theme of goodness; what it is, where it comes from, how closely it is allied to religion.  Barnaby's goodness can be a shield, a mask, and a challenge; characters in the novel may believe in it implicitly but the reader is in the privileged position of knowing about his flaws and mistakes, but Gale's sympathy for his characters ensures that Barnaby remains likeable rather than being irritatingly perfect. The book is particularly interesting when considering the position of a priest in a society mostly indifferent to religion, his separateness and his accessibility, and the impact this has on Barnaby and on his family. 

Gale at his best is excellent at narrative tension, at keeping the reader engrossed in his characters and the evolution of the plot, and this works really well in this novel, as secrets and tensions emerge.  There is also a chance to meet some of the characters from Notes from an Exhibition again and Gale, as usual makes good use of the Cornish setting.  This book is far more complex in structure and content than the beach-read cover suggests, absorbing and satisfying as well as challenging.

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