When life is just a ba­nana sand­wich in a plas­tic box

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Mcna­mara

IT be­gins with a death: Lenny Barnes, paral­ysed at 20, writes to his mother and to his fi­ancee, and then kills him­self be­fore a priest. This sui­cide frames Pa­trick Gale’s A Per­fectly Good Man, an am­bling, nu­anced por­trait of lives in the Cor­nish vil­lage of Pen­deen.

Each chap­ter takes a mo­ment in a char­ac­ter’s life his­tory. As we see their mar­riages and births, hopes and deaths, the sto­ries in­ter­weave, form in­ter­stices and to­gether pro­vide a study of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.

Cen­tral to these nar­ra­tives is Barn­aby John­son, priest, dis­in­her­ited heir, quiet man of bi­cy­cles and coun­try lanes, striv­ing to do good but of­ten fail­ing. His wife, Dot, a farmer’s daugh­ter, bloomed young and sur­prised her­self by set­tling into parish work. We meet Car­rie, the John­sons’ car­pen­ter daugh­ter, and Jim, their adopted son. There is Nuala, Lenny’s artist mother, ly­ing in her dead son’s bed and ‘‘ haunted by sweet dreams’’. Mod­est Carls­son, a mem­o­rable if car­toon­ish vil­lain, is pi­ous, oleagi­nous, the se­cret vil­lage rapist and smut-mer­chant, whose cru­elty to Barn­aby is ter­ri­ble but never known. In the main cast’s sto­ries, Gale in­tro­duces a range of mi­nor char­ac­ters, largely vi­brant and well-drawn.

Through the pat­terns of these lives, Gale crafts a novel of loss, of grief, but par­tic­u­larly, of love. The young Barn­aby’s and Dot’s kiss among ‘‘ sea grass and thrift flow­ers’’ cap­tures first love’s in­no­cence; so too does the teenage Lenny, ‘‘ ex­cited by starlight and hav­ing the house to him­self’’, email­ing Amy his first love let­ter.

Gale ex­plores il­licit love, too: the ef­fects of an af­fair in a sunny cot­tage near the cliffs per­me­ate the nar­ra­tive. Fam­ily love in all its many shades is well han­dled: Gale’s de­scrip­tions of the John­son chil­dren’s sto­icism amid quiet, mid­dle-class poverty — ba­nana sand­wiches in Tup­per­ware while friends all find a cafe — is poignant. So too is his por­trayal of fam­ily love’s fail­ings: Barn­aby’s fa­ther, who can’t see the point of a fu­neral for his daugh­ter; Barn­aby, who tries earnestly but fails to con­nect with Jim.

Fi­nally, Gale’s depic­tion of love be­tween man and man, woman and woman shines in its re­proach of ho­mo­pho­bia; in that sense, the novel’s treat­ment of love plays an im­por­tant so­cial pur­pose.

A Per­fectly Good Man is, as the ti­tle sug­gests, con­cerned with good­ness: what it means, where to find it, and how the com­plex­i­ties of con­text can make it shift and al­ter. Love of­ten forms a crux for char­ac­ters think­ing through how best to live; so, too, does the church, whether they are in it or against it. Gale en­dorses Chris­tian faith as a source of good but his view is bal­anced, not uni­ver­sal­is­ing. He has aw­ful Chris­tians (Mod­est, Amy’s par­ents) and aw­ful athe­ists (Barn­aby’s fa­ther), just as he has pos­i­tive ex­am­ples of both.

To in­ves­ti­gate good­ness, Gale also con­sid­ers evil. The book has rapes and mur­ders, drug abuse, a preg­nant woman kicked in the guts. There is adul­tery and ne­glect. There are life­long lies. He re­flects more qui­etly on evil too: for in­stance, in the tears of Mod­est’s vic­tim when a sen­ti­men­tal item is thieved and burned for the sim­ple fun of cru­elty.

Gale is good at tak­ing scenes of emo­tional in­ten­sity and wring­ing the most from them. He does so neatly though, gen­er­at­ing pathos with more quo­tid­ian events and han­dling the louder acts of vi­o­lence care­fully enough for them to be, in the main, not melo­drama but the dark lin­ing of Pen­deen’s lanes and fields. A Per­fectly Good Man is not, though, a work of lit­er­a­ture. Gale has de­scribed his nov­els as be­ing ‘‘ run-of-the-mill’’, and noth­ing in the prose style of this one dis­pels that: (‘‘But thanks to what Barn­aby had awo­ken in her, Henry sud­denly seemed the man­li­est man she knew, of course, and the sisterly hap­pi­ness she felt for him was borne up on lit­tle up­swells of erotic re­gret.’’).

To re­view this book as lit­er­ary fic­tion would have been a dif­fer­ent project, a cri­tique of au­tho­rial and ed­i­to­rial lazi­ness, chunks of life­less di­a­logue, awk­ward phrases, ob­vi­ous sym­bol­ism. It is a shame Gale doesn’t pay more at­ten­tion to his prose: there are hints here of a much bet­ter writer. But a re­view of com­mer­cial fic­tion should con­sider what the vol­ume seeks to be in­stead of cat­a­logu­ing what, in lit­er­a­ture, would be so ob­vi­ously lack­ing. This novel, then, should not win lit­er­ary prizes, but it is pow­er­ful and com­pelling. James Mcna­mara re­ceived his doc­tor­ate in English lit­er­a­ture from Ox­ford. He works as a lawyer in Syd­ney and is fin­ish­ing a novel.

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