A com­ing-of-age saga that de­tours into the darker as­pects of mid­dle-class life

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS - JOANNE HAY­DEN

Tin­der Press, hard­back, 344 pages, €18

When the main char­ac­ter in Pa­trick Gale’s new novel is be­ing briefed about the on­ce­off post-oper­a­tive treat­ment he’ll un­dergo for thy­roid can­cer, he is told to bring noth­ing with him that he doesn’t mind leav­ing be­hind. The treat­ment will make him ra­dioac­tive for a day, con­tam­i­nat­ing any­thing and any­one he touches, and the nurse’s in­struc­tion — the ba­sis of the book’s ti­tle — sets the mood for Gale’s bit­ter­sweet story.

In fact, Eus­tace takes his life with him to the lead-lined room where he is to spend a day in iso­la­tion. And as soon as he be­gins to lis­ten to a se­ries of cello record­ings — a Prous­tian gift from a friend — he is trans­ported back to his 1970s child­hood in the English sea­side town of We­ston-Super-Mare, into mem­o­ries of mu­sic and messy love.

Though less well known than some of his con­tem­po­raries, Gale is a pro­lific writer and has been work­ing steadily since his two first nov­els were pub­lished si­mul­ta­ne­ously in 1986. His first ven­ture into his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, A Place Called Win­ter, was short­listed for the Costa Book Award in 2015, and in 2017, his TV drama Man in an Or­ange Shirt was screened as part of the BBC’s Queer Bri­tan­nia se­ries. By the end of this year, his back cat­a­logue, in­clud­ing some pre­vi­ously out-of-print ti­tles, will be avail­able from Tin­der Press.

It’s good news, be­cause Gale is an en­tic­ing and qui­etly sub­ver­sive sto­ry­teller. On one level, Take Noth­ing With You is an ac­ces­si­ble and fairly straight­for­ward com­ing-of-age saga, ex­plor­ing the de­vel­op­ment of Eus­tace’s re­la­tion­ship with mu­sic and his own sex­u­al­ity, but its de­pic­tions of strange­ness and tox­i­c­ity of un­der-the-sur­face con­ven­tions of mid­dle-class life take it into darker and more sur­pris­ing ter­ri­tory.

An only child, an out­sider and in­tro­vert, Eus­tace lives in the nurs­ing home run by his par­ents. When, as a young teenager, he be­gins cello lessons with Carla, he dis­cov­ers an in­tense pas­sion for the in­stru­ment and new pos­si­bil­i­ties beckon. He and his mother are be­sot­ted with his so­phis­ti­cated, ex­tro­verted teacher, and, through her, meet a gay cou­ple that, in Eus­tace’s eyes, be­come a kind of al­ter­na­tive fam­ily. Gale uses dra­matic irony to re­veal that Carla and Eus­tace’s mother are hav­ing a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship. Eus­tace re­mains (slightly un­be­liev­ably) obliv­i­ous to this.

Later, he goes to a cello camp in Scot­land, and meets a sec­ond teacher who will ul­ti­mately de­cide whether or not he will be­come a pro­fes­sional cel­list. Gale is ex­cel­lent at de­pict­ing how some gifted teach­ers can be in­spi­ra­tional and desta­bil­is­ing at once, fos­ter­ing am­bi­tion and in­se­cu­rity, en­gag­ing in mind games and power play.

It’s a novel of dou­bles, a dou­ble nar­ra­tive set in the present and the past, though the past has more emo­tional weight. There are two cello teach­ers, two love in­ter­ests for the teenage Eus­tace, two trips to mu­sic camp, two nurs­ing homes, two grand­par­ents — one ma­ter­nal, one pa­ter­nal — two gay re­la­tion­ships.

Un­der­stated and eerie, this wonky mir­ror­ing cap­tures the in­evitabil­ity and im­pos­si­bil­ity of re­cur­rence — the same things hap­pen again but al­ways dif­fer­ently — and, in a story map­ping the tran­si­tion from child­hood to adult­hood, its sym­bolic res­o­nance is deeply sat­is­fy­ing.

Less sat­is­fy­ing are some of the plot twists, par­tic­u­larly an overly dra­matic one in­volv­ing Eus­tace’s thor­oughly aw­ful mother. Gale doesn’t al­ways ac­count for the mo­ti­va­tions of his characters; ul­ti­mately, Eus­tace’s mother re­mains a mys­tery. He es­chews neat­ness in more un­der­stand­able ways, too — characters drift apart or change, they re­ject and be­tray one another. Again and again, Eus­tace’s am­bi­tions are thwarted, fit­ting with one of the novel’s cen­tral themes: un­der­stand­ing and tran­scend­ing re­gret.

In el­e­gant, re­strained prose, Gale writes with an eye on im­per­ma­nence, show­ing how loss can be tinged with hope, and new be­gin­nings with the threat of mor­tal­ity. He is ex­cel­lent at cap­tur­ing time and place and while he doesn’t avoid so­cial com­men­tary — Eus­tace is alive to the nuances of the Bri­tish class sys­tem, and his mother’s in­ter­nalised ho­mo­pho­bia has dras­tic consequences — he em­beds it within the nar­ra­tive so that it doesn’t feel su­per­im­posed.

Sim­i­larly, he writes about the cello and clas­si­cal mu­sic with an in­sider’s knowl­edge but lim­its the pas­sages of pure de­scrip­tion; in­stead, he taps into a range of ex­pe­ri­ences and emo­tions that are both spe­cific and beau­ti­fully univer­sal.

PHOTO: MARKUS BIDEAUX

Pro­lific: Gale is ex­cel­lent at cap­tur­ing time and place.

FIC­TION Take Noth­ing With You Pa­trick Gale

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