There are some novels that I read where all I want to do for a review is simply write the words… Read this book. Nothing more, nothing less. However I am aware you need more than those three words to get you to part with your pennies or head to the local library, the question is how to encapsulate a book like Patrick Gale’s latest novel A Place Called Winter in a mere review? Well, here goes.
When we first meet Harry Cane he is locked in an institute, what he has done we do not initially know, and is undergoing a rather horrendous kind of treatment. Yet soon he is taken away to Bethel, a community for those who have been shut out or locked away from society. He is encouraged to tell the story of how he got there, the story of how a well to do and well off man started his life in England and then ended up in the middle of the Canadian wilderness building a new life that has seemingly, to an outsider, driven him mad.
Gale structures A Place Called Winter in delightful way, as we get insights into various pivotal moments in one man’s life alternating between their present and their past making the links between the two. We watch how he grows up in England looking after his brother Jack, how he marries and then falls for the charms of Mr Browning; who soon becomes his downfall leaving Harry no choice but to head to the wilds of Canada without his family to start again. In case you are thinking I have just spoiled the whole story, there is so much more to come, including the journey he makes there and the people he meets along the way, not always with the outcomes you may guess at. The last I will say on the plot is that it is a real journey of adventure, danger and self discovery and you will want to read it in a few sittings, often weeping for all sorts of reasons.
A Place Called Winter is a blooming marvellous story. Gale is brilliant at placing you into the heads and hearts of his characters, mainly because his prose calls for us to empathise with them, even if we might not want to. We have all been in love, we have all done things we regret, we have all fallen for a rogue (or two or three), we have all felt bullied and the outsider at some point, we have all had an indiscretion and left the country to become a farmer in a foreign land… Oh, maybe not that. Yet even when our protagonist goes through things we haven’t Gale’s depiction and storytelling make us feel we are alongside Harry. We live Harry’s life with him; the highs and the lows, the characters and situations good or bad.
It also has a wonderful sense of adventure, sometimes exciting sometimes perilous. The surroundings and settings of the book become characters as much as the people. For example the hustle and bustle of London, the leisurely nature of Herne Bay, the power of the seas, the wildness of Moose Jaw and the desolate and endless monotony (cleverly without ever being boring) and harsh extremities of Winter itself. I have mentioned only recently how much I love reading about nature and the countryside/wilderness in books and this has that aplenty.
He opened it, welcoming the cold night air, and stared out at a landscape transformed. There were stars, a seamless, spangled fishnet of them from horizon to horizon, coldly lighting the land and lending the farm buildings, outlined sharply against them, an eerie loveliness.
I love a book that looks brims with layers and explores several themes, or can set your brain off thinking about things from a different angle or that you may not have before. I found the way Gale looks at and discusses homosexuality fascinating and heartbreaking. It is the way that due to society everything must go unspoken. There was no such thing as ‘being gay’ you were seen as a sexual deviant of the lowest order, end of. Even those rare people who tried to be accepting struggle, as Harry is asked “Is it… Is it emotional or simply a physical need the two of you are answering?” to which he replies “I suppose, in a different world, where everyone felt differently, it would be both. When a thing is forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.” We the reader live in a world where it has become more acceptable (though we still have a way to go) and gay rights are fought for, we look back on this in hindsight and see how horrific it is.
Gale even looks at the psychology that this world must have created, the need for secrecy and how it might even bring out internalised homophobia in those who were living such a life. “Christ, Harry! Listen to yourself. You’re not attractive when you plead. I preferred you married and unobtainable. In fact that is how I prefer all my men. Men can’t live together like a married couple. It’s grotesque and whatever would be the point, even if they could? It’s not as though they’re going to start a family.” (See what I said about Gale putting you in the heads of those you do and don’t want to empathise with.) Gale also looks at the ironies of a place where men would dance with men due to the lack of women, and shack up with other men in winter for practical reasons be they financial or simply survival, yet who would exile gay men as they would women of rape or the indigenous Indian community.
In case that makes this sound like one of those worthy books which tries to preach at the reader it isn’t at all. Yes, one of the main themes is homosexuality yet by its very nature what the whole of A Place Called Winter is about is humanity and also love; regardless of gender be it familial, platonic or passionate. It was this which led me to describing it as ‘Austen meets Brokeback Mountain’ as it wonderfully combines a marvellous contemporary novel with the sense and sensibilities (see what I did there?) of the classic trope. It is pacy, thrilling, horrifying and puts you through the wringer emotionally, whilst having those wonderful storytelling and prose qualities of the past where you have the tale of a life and the intricate situations, places and people who surround and intertwine with it.
I will wrap up by simply saying that A Place Called Winter is a fantastic novel and I think the best that Patrick Gale has written so far. It has all the qualities that create a real treat of a corking read for me. It introduces you to wonderful characters, takes you away from the world you know, makes you think, laugh and cry and all whilst telling you a bloody good story. I was completely lost in Harry’s world and his life and recommend that you go on the journey with him as soon as you can. Easily one of my books of the year; so go on, read this book!
If that still hasn’t sold it then nothing will, well, maybe I should add that for a few days (because I binged on this book) I became an uncommunicative zombie whose head was stuck in this book at all hours, even refusing to watch House of Cards! Oh and even higher praise, this book has lots of horses in it and spends some time on a long boat journey and I didn’t even care, which regular readers here will know is a huge achievement. Anyway enough of my thoughts, who else has read A Place Called Winter and what did you think?
Ooh, and quick note, if you are ‘oop north’ and near Liverpool on Monday the 27th or Manchester on Tuesday the 28th of April (next week) then do please come and see me in conversation with Patrick about A Place Called Winter in Waterstones. Details here and here. Hope to see some of you there.