Is the subtext of Patrick Gale’s Cornish set novel “A Perfectly Good Man” a not quite good enough man, a merely adequate man, whose undoubtedly good intentions always lead to complex, unforeseen consequences?
The story tells of a man’s struggle with faith, marriage and yes, morality, which are inextricably bound together. It’s not an easy story to get to grips with, pulling in various developmental strands, which permeate the narrative along the way (rather like life) but it is somehow compulsive. While it wouldn’t be true to say I couldn’t put it down, I was quite keen to pick it back up again, especially as the characters, who develop in a non-linear way, took some time to get to know.
A more disparate group of people one could barely hope to meet. Barnaby Thomas, the plodding vicar, is appropriately named, for it means ‘son of consolation’ . His wife, overweight, and seemingly dull, is stalwart, making little emotional impact, but somehow always there. Her sudden demise is the most exciting thing about her. Then there is the paralysed rugby player who, early in the book, takes his own life, the daughter who only later realises unexpected happiness, and other dysfunctional characters, compelling in their very ordinariness.
Barnaby is a man whose needs are subsumed by those of others, as the complications of modern life unravel. Everyone, it seems, has secrets but they will always out, even the relocated and reinvented paedophile is caught out in the end. The book contains happinesses but largely reflects upon the dulled existences we all lead, mundane and unexceptional, driven by our individual imperfections and flaws. Beneath the veneer of respectability lies dysfunction: Barnaby’s childhood, Phuc’s drug and alcohol ridden preferences, and the dark shadow of the creepy Modest Carlsson, through whom childhood damage is perhaps most heavily alluded to.
Set in the author’s West Cornwall, the story is told from multiple viewpoints, so that our perspective of the key character (hero is way too strong a word) fluctuates wildly. Indeed, so good and dull is Barnaby that when he does show a darker side it is almost the relief that creepy Modest has been seeking. We almost want to see him fall, be more human and less divine. The reader, according to Gale’s own website, becomes God-like, enjoying an informed overview of all the characters.
It’s hard to write well about a good man as wickedness is much more fun and more readily understandable. Gale achieves it through snapshots in time which throw light on Barnaby’s development. Ultimately though, does Barnaby actually feel anything at all? One feels the full force of his childhood repression when Dot dies, an event he deals with matter of factly before moving on.
It is a novel of shifting identities, of individual agency at play even when events happen outside our control. Dorothy, the wife, becomes, against her will, reduced to Dot, minimised in her husband’s eyes and those of her community. Lenny becomes, against his will, paralysed, so that his life is no longer worth living. Modest Carlsson, convicted pedophile becomes vile but acceptable following a prison sentence. The Vietnamese son, Jim, reverts to his original name of Phuc. There is secrecy, suppression and illicitness, self-damage and at times, questionable motives. Daughter Carrie, for example, takes many years to realise her sexual tendencies and preferences. The flawed characters are highly believable, however, because they are so beautifully imperfect; it’s just like real life. At times, the novel can become heavy going with the multitude of twists and turns though.
What is alarming at the end is that it is hard to feel empathy or indeed sympathy for any of the characters; none of them, except perhaps Lenny, manages to draw one’s pity, and perhaps Alice, Barnaby’s lively, outgoing, adventurous sister, the one flicker of light in the book, destined for an early and sticky end. There is almost no hope for a happy outcome and certainly no expectation of such, as the characters continue to live their lives along the same fault lines unable to traverse the wide gulfs between them. But others disagree with my final analysis. Some have found the final chapter uplifting and enlightening. I merely found it appropriate to the rest of the book.