Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gale (Tree Surgery for Beginners) is an English novelist with a particular gift for family dynamics. Cleverly structured and sophisticated in its treatment of time, his latest novel is an alternately sweet, touching and somber tale of a mildly dysfunctional English family. The book alternates between accounts of two family holidays spent in the same seaside cottage in Cornwall 30 years apart. The sturdy, reliable father, John Pagett, is "governor" (warden) of a British prison, which supplies young Julian with considerable offbeat excitement, particularly when a noted prisoner escapes. Frances, Julian's mother, is a repressed musician who seems to have merely settled for John and domesticity. Thirty years later, John is still much as he was; Julian has become Will and is unhappily gay, carrying on a doomed affair with brother-in-law Sandy; Frances is showing signs of incipient Alzheimer's. As the scenes alternate, Gale slyly enlarges his canvas, embroiling the younger Frances in a brief affair with her brother-in-law. The domestic details and undercurrents of an English seaside holiday in the vastly differing social climates of the 1950s and '80s are stunningly caught, and the dialogue, whether parent-placid or suddenly gay-quarrelsome, is spot on. The conclusion, for both Will and his parents, brings a deserved glow of quiet reconciliation. The only thing that may slightly mar this highly intelligent and beautifully crafted novel for American readers is its very British emotional reticence, even if that does allow for myriad shades of delicate feeling. (May) Forecast: Ballantine is making a big push for this book, with encomiums from many of its key salespeople, and it will be interesting to see if the independent booksellers, at whom these are obviously aimed, will respond to the book similarly. If they do, it should become a strong hand-selling prospect. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
In his richly rewarding ninth novel, British author Gale (Tree Surgery for Beginners, 1994, etc.) leaves behind the comedy on which he's built a reputation to explore how secrets, betrayals, and missed connections come close to tearing a family apart. From the powerful opening image of a woman feeling the ocean suck the sand from beneath her feet, Gale intertwines two plots concerning the same family and taking place in the same beach cottage 30-odd years apart. In the 1960s, eight-year-old Julian Pagett and his gently inhibited parents go to Cornwall for a vacation that begins with great promise but spirals out of control with the arrival from America of the boy's uncle and cousin. In the contemporary story, Julian has evolved into Will, a 40-year-old bookstore owner having an affair with his sister's husband. For his birthday, Will's unsuspecting sister gives him a vacation in Cornwall. Will brings along his parents, stoic John and gutsy Frances, who is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer's. Frances is a remarkable creation full of emotional nooks and crannies, whether as a young, rather proper British matron discovering her sexuality, or as a grandmother who sees the world she inhabits with cruel clarity despite her failing memory. John too is drawn with nuanced delicacy, particularly his inability to express the intense love he feels for Frances with the abandon they both crave. Will's story is less compelling, his romance with a mysterious stranger predictable and too neatly settled. But, overall, Gale uses detaila lunch of fish and chips on a pier, a moment of intimacy seen by mistake through a half-open doorto build a palpable sense of regret and emotional urgency. Histreatment of issues like Alzheimer's and gay love rises above the trendy and politically correct; his characters are so imperfect they are impossible not to love. If Oprah takes British writers, this is a shoo-in.
Read an Excerpt
She walked across the sand carrying a shoe in either hand, drawn forward as much by the great blue moon up ahead as by the sound of the breaking waves. The moon had a ring around it which promised or threatened something, she forgot what exactly.Copyright 2002 by Patrick Gale
The chill of the foam shocked her skin. She stood still and felt the delicious tug beneath her soles as the water sucked sand out from under them. The water was as cold as death.
If I stood here long enough, she thought, just stood, the sea would draw out more and more sand from under me and bring more and more back in. Little by little I’d sink, ankles already, knees soon, then waist, then belly.
She imagined standing up to her tingling breasts in sucking, salty sand. When the first, disarmingly little wave struck her in the face, would she panic? Would she, instead, laugh, as they said, inappropriately?
She dared herself not to move.
The moon was nearly full. She could see the headland on the far side of the estuary mouth and its stumpy, striped lighthouse. She could see the foam flung and drawn, flung and drawn about her. He was striding across the little beach behind her; she could tell without turning. Would his hands touch her first or would she merely feel the jacket he draped about her? Would he call out from yards away or would she hear his voice soft and sudden when his lips were only inches from her neck?
Her resolution not to turn stiffened her spine. Watching weeds and foam rush away from her for long enough made it feel as though the sea and beach were motionless and it was only she who was gliding back and forth on mysterious salty tracks.
I love you. She felt the wordswell up. I love you more than words can say. Which was true, of course, because when she felt his steadying hands about her shoulders at last and the brush of his lips on her neck, all that came from her mouth was, “I turn you. Turn my words away?”
“Actually I feel a bit of a fraud being here,” Will told her. “I’m basically a happy man. No. There’s no basically about it. I’m happy. I am a happy man.”
“Good,” she said, crossing her legs and caressing an ankle as if to smooth out a crease she found there. “What makes you say that?”
“That I’m happy?”
“Well.” He uncrossed his legs, sat back in the sofa and peered out of her study window. He saw the waters of the Bross glittering at the edge of Boniface Gardens, two walkers pausing, briefly allied by the gamboling of their dogs. “I imagine you usually see people at their wit’s end. People with depression or insoluble problems.”
“Occasionally. Some people come to me merely because they’ve lost their way.”
He detected a certain sacerdotal smugness in her tone and suspected he hated her. “Well I’m here because a friend bought me a handful of sessions for my birthday. She thinks I need them.”
“Do you mind?”
He shrugged, laughed. “Makes a change from socks and book tokens.”
“But you don’t feel you need to be here.”
“I . . . I know it sounds arrogant but no, I don’t. Not especially. It’s just that it would have been rude not to come, even though she’ll be far too discreet to ask how I get on with you. If I didn’t come, I’d be rejecting her present and I’d hate to do that. I love her.”
“Harriet. My best friend. She’s like a second sister but I think of her as a friend first and family second.”
“You have more loyalty to friends than family?”
“I didn’t say that. But you know how it is; people move on from family and choose new allies. It’s part of becoming an adult. I feel I’m moving on too. A little late in the day, I suppose.”
“Your best friend’s a woman.”
“Is that unusual?” She said nothing, waiting for him to speak. “I suppose it is,” he went on. “I’m just not a bloke’s bloke. I never have been. I find women more congenial, more evolved. I mean I’m perfectly happy being a man, but I find I have more in common with women.”
He did hate her. He hated her royally. “The things we laugh at. The things we do with our free time. And, okay, I suppose you’ll want to talk about this—”
“I don’t want to talk about anything you don’t want to talk about.”
“Whatever. We also share sexual interests. I mean we like the same thing.”
“I’m gay.” He smiled, determined to charm her, but she was impervious and vouchsafed no more than a wintry smile. “I told you. I’m a happy man.”
“Your sexuality isn’t a problem for you.”
“It never has been. It’s a constant source of delight. Not a day goes by when I don’t thank God. If anything I’m relieved. Especially now my friends are all having children.”
“You never wanted children.”
“Of course. Sometimes. Hats jokes that if she dies I can have hers. But no. The impulse came and went. There are more than enough children in the world and I’m not so obsessed with seeing myself reproduced. Besides, one of my nephews is the spitting image of me, which has taken care of that. I love my own company. I don’t think I’m selfish exactly but I’m self-sufficient.”
“What about settling down? You’re, what, thirty-five?”
“Thank you for that. I turned forty earlier this year. I have settled down. I have a satisfying job, a nice flat. I just happen to have settled down alone.”
“And watching all those girlfriends settled with their partners doesn’t make you want a significant other.”
“Oh. I have one of those. Sort of, I suppose. He’s really why I’m here. I made a promise to him. It was a joke really, but I told Harriet and—”
“Tell me about him.”
He paused. Glanced out at the view again. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s private.”
“Whatever you tell me—”
“—is in strictest confidence. Yes. I know. But we’ve barely met, you’re still a stranger to me and I’d rather not talk about him just now. It’s not a painful situation. He’s a lovely man. He makes me happy. But I didn’t come here to talk about him.”
A slight, attentive raising of her eyebrows asked, So what did you come to talk about?
“Shouldn’t we start with my childhood?” he said. “Isn’t that the usual thing?”
“If you like.”
“I warn you. I wasn’t abused. I wasn’t neglected. I love my parents and I loved my childhood. It was very, very happy.”
“Tell me about it.”