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Barnaby Johnson, a priest in a rural West Cornish parish, makes what he expects to be a run-of-the-mill pastoral visit to one of his parishioners, a young man who has recently been disabled and confined to a wheelchair. What happens during the visit, however, is that rather than offering comfort and hope to twenty-year-old Lennie Barnes, he's become a witness to the young man's suicide and the reverberations of that fact echo not only within Barnaby's circle of close family and friends but it allows one of his least pleasant parishioners the opportunity to spread his malevolence over events.
I've enjoyed several of Patrick Gale's previous novels over the years and was therefore looking forward to reading this one which was chosen by one of the members of my book group. She chose this because it was a recommended read of Richard and Judy's Summer Book Club. When we came to discussing it a few weeks later, the person who chose it hadn't enjoyed the novel at all whilst the rest of us had mixed feelings.
What we got was a beautifully written story delivered in a very understated British way and which offered brief snapshots of life in any small British town you care to mention, with a cast of characters which cover just about the whole spectrum of humanity from the good and the godly, the tormented, the misguided and the conflicted, right through to the downright nasty. Because of the low key delivery, however, I found that it frequently failed to pack much of a punch.
The story begins with the suicide, for which we not only have ringside seats but also get to see it from the perspective of the suicide himself, young Lennie. I have to tell you that I found this opening chapter to be incredibly moving and once I'd dried my tears, I settle down for what I hoped would be a thoroughly enjoyable read. I was, however, a little disappointed because the story never quite managed to engage my emotions anywhere near as deeply after that traumatic opener. In fact, I rather felt that Patrick Gale missed a trick by killing off Lennie, a character with the potential to be one of the most interesting in the book.
The author, once again, adopts a writing device he's used in previous novels in that the narrative jumps around between characters and time periods so we have chapter titles giving the character name and their age at the time of the events recorded. Rather than appreciating the way the book hopped around, I found it made for a somewhat disjointed read and sometimes distracted from the flow of the narrative.
The perfectly good man of the title is Barnaby and it's up to the reader to decide really whether Barnaby is a good man or not. Personally, I found him to be perfectly wishy-washy both in his character and his religion. Despite being referred to as a priest and addressed as Father, Barnaby is an Anglican. Not being at all religious and having had the benefit of an upbringing in an atheist household, I'm not too well informed on church matters but I rather took against old Barnaby from the very beginning when he sat there spouting his liturgy whilst poor young Lennie was dying before his eyes. It's very judgemental of me, I know, but despite Lennie's wish to die, most right thinking people would surely have called for an ambulance rather than said a prayer!
Though the book deals with the aftermath of Lennie's death, the format allows the reader to see moments in the lives of the main characters which have led up to the present. Again, like Barnaby, most of these characters didn't come across as very fleshed out or even particularly relevant.
This is a character-driven rather than a plot-driven story but, apart from Lennie, I really didn't find any of these characters particularly appealing and the plot is so slowly developed that it fails to impact at all.
The main character, Barnaby, is someone with whom I found it very difficult to empathise. He was just an ordinary sort of bloke trying to be good. Nearly all the characters in the book are realistic but ordinary in that small town kind of way. Even the baddie isn't really all that bad, though I did enjoy the fact that most of his attempts at badness backfired on him and turned out to be good deeds.
I enjoyed this book in a half-hearted sort of way but after that initial emotional scene, the story never really grabbed me again. Having said that, there is some beautifully written prose within the book and the descriptions of Cornwall and of small town life are wonderful and will undoubtedly appeal to anyone who actually knows the area or, indeed, has ever experienced life in a small rural community. In many ways it reads almost like a literary version of The Archers and like the radio programme this is really just 'an everyday story of country folk.'
My book group mark our reads out of ten and I gave this a six. It's a good enough read but just didn't quite hit the spot for me. The others scored mainly between five and seven with the person who initially chose this to be our April read, scoring it the lowest, only giving it two. She found the inclusion of gay characters, marital infidelity and a hint of paedophilia to be not quite to her taste. I would add that I didn't find anything offensive in the way any of these subjects are treated, even the paedophilia, which is barely touched on. With regard to the issues of the homosexual characters, the author is gay so these are written with a true understanding of how this may impact not only on the characters themselves but also on those around them, especially in a relatively unenlightened rural setting.
If you enjoy a gentle read which tells a story of people living fairly ordinary lives and takes its time getting to the point but doesn't make that point very forcefully, you'll like this book. I don't think this is Patrick Gale's best book but it's not bad.
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Price: £2.99 (Kindle edition)