A PLACE CALLED WINTER
By Patrick Gale
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
This new novel from Patrick Gale is something of a departure for him, as not only does he abandon his usual setting of England for Canada, but it is also historical (set in the early decades of the 20th century). It is also inspired by a real-life family mystery – Patrick Gale’s grandmother grew up fatherless. Her father Harry Cane was obliged to leave the country after ‘something went wrong’ and start a new life on the unbroken prairies of Canada. Intrigued by this, Patrick began digging into Harry Cane and this novel is a hybrid of what he uncovered through his research and his own personality and writer’s imagination. Unsurprisingly, he has imagined that his ancestor’s disgrace was homosexuality, and the narrative he has crafted is absolutely first-rate. He tells the story of Harry Cane, shy and ill at ease, and a complete contrast to his more confident, athletic and good-looking younger brother Jack. But the brothers share a close bond, as they have never really known the love and affection of parents. Yet their father left them well provided for, and when Jack falls in love, he thoughtfully finds a match for Harry with his wife’s sister. Although this marriage was something of a compromise, Harry was quite content, until a chance encounter with a handsome actor, Frank, leads him into a passionate same-sex affair. This illicit liaison continues for more than a year, only to be undone by a careless mistake. Faced with disgrace, his brother-in-law insists that Harry must exile himself from his wife and daughter and immigrate to Canada. Unwanted by his lover Frank, Harry agrees, although he is a most unlikely farmer and settler. But the alternatives are a scandal and possibly goal.
The plot is engrossing, yet the way Gale has structured the novel makes it even more tantalising for the reader. In the opening chapter, Harry is confined to an asylum, only to be rescued by one of the doctors and transferred to a curious therapeutic community that appears to be in North America. Then the novel steps back in time and unfolds the story of the two Cane brothers in England, but the reader is left wondering – what has occurred and how does Harry end up in this place? It will take almost the entire novel to be revealed.
This novel is certain to be an enormous success with Patrick Gale’s many gay readers and fans. It is an absolutely fascinating story, made all the more interesting by its origins in Gale’s family tree. But it is also unfolded by a seasoned writer (this is Gale’s 17th work of fiction) who has structured it very cleverly. The historical detail, the finely drawn characters, the vivid settings, and the pace of the narrative all make this a superlative read. But then when the book slowly develops into an unexpected love story, it truly sweeps the reader away.