Patrick Gale mines true life in A Place Called Winter
A Place Called Winter
Tinder Press, $35
After Ireland's recent legalization of gay marriage and the renewed focus this has brought to equality issues across the Tasman, it's timely to come across English author, Patrick Gale's historical novel, A Place Called Winter. Gale is a prodigious writer, his new book his seventeenth. Many of his previous works, such as Dangerous Pleasures, turn upon the lives of gay and lesbian characters caught in the considerable and conventional dramas of life. Drawing together themes of exclusion and belonging, exodus and sexuality, A Place Called Winter intersects well with its author's previous output, while also bringing an intriguing spin upon the authorial adage, 'write what you know'.
The plot concerns Edwardian gentleman, Harry Cane. Introverted and timid, he falls into marriage and fatherhood due to his mother-in-law's scheming rather than by intention or attraction. Soon however his illicit passion for another man risks compromising his family. Seeking to diffuse the stigma his liaison has wrought upon his puritanical milieu, Harry migrates to Canada sans famille in search of anonymity, reinvention and a new home.
Harry's naivety and insularity could distance him from readers' affections particularly given the novel's historical setting, which itself has the potential to dissociate a contemporary audience. But through the use of a limited third-person perspective, Gale places us always in Harry's head where we remain in harmony with his thoughts, insights and experiences. As such, the protagonist's social shortcomings aren't encumbrances, they're endearments; and we become deeply attached to Harry, his adventures and limitations. Consequently, in times of personal crisis for Harry, we realize the deficiencies aren't his but rather are due to the deeply constricting social mores of the age.
Our understanding of the conflicts which beset Harry is deepened by Gale's ability to thematically connect historical migrant existence to historical gay experience. In Edwardian times, Gale infers, exiles and gay people were both outcasts. The familial shunning Harry experiences in England is mirrored by the reclusive behavior he endures when he flees overseas. Whether it's working as an itinerant farm hand or his furtive companionship with brutish strangers, everywhere Harry's life in Canada is peripheral.
Writing recently in The Guardian, Gale confessed that A Place in Winter began as a memoir of sorts, an unearthing of his great-grandfather's mysterious life, only to falter, his ancestor's shrouded past proving unidentifiable. Thus Gale fictionalized the life-story. This allowed him to fill his forebear's uncertain existence with imagination and invention.
Knowing this isn't essential to enjoying A Place in Winter. But, with its charming hero and clever connections between journeying and sexual expedition, this is a novel in which awareness of the author's personal connection to the narrative makes our passage through the book even more enjoyable.