A Perfectly Good Man – Patrick Gale

APGMOne of out members is a minister’s son and said, “I experienced lots of familiar feelings and emotions when reading A Perfectly Good Man – the feeling that the house was always being taken over by, and seemed always available to others…deacons’ meetings, women’s meetings, callers in trouble at various hours of day/night needing my father. It also made him something of an ‘absentee father’ who belonged to others as much as to us.
Gale brings this out well.

“This is my first Patrick Gale novel, and I look forward to reading the new one.

“I do not usually like the ‘flip about all over the place’ style, preferring old fashioned chronology; novels which move around in time usually confuse this aging brain. However, this worked. Like picking up a new piece in a Jigsaw Puzzle, I enjoyed fitting each new chapter into the picture I had built so far, often having to rapidly change my hastily reached conclusions until the bigger picture emerged.

“A pleasing read; not a great novel; enjoyable and familiar whilst raising some interesting moral and social issues.”

Another said that “I did enjoy the book and the omniscient narration, though it didn’t engage me until the last chapter!”

The last chapter shows the child as father to the man – Barnaby aged 8 is a normal; playful boy but also shows the seeds of a deep thinker.

Some characters could have been developed more but the book moved on to someone else once their part in the plot had been established or, at least, hinted at.

It wasn’t heavy enough, was pointless and unchallenging, said some, but another liked the people so much that he wanted to move into the vicarage and live them all.

The depiction of Modest Carson divided opinion. One of us found his portrayal helped to understand why he was ‘evil’. Another saw him as a foil to Barnaby and wondered whether it was influenced by Margery Allingham’s The Tiger In The Smoke, which has a saintly priest and an evil, satanic person.

Modest Carson’s church crawling is well-described: The Anglican cathedral was too pale and impersonal, the Catholic one, too full of trinkets, like a common Christmas tree. The Methodists felt too low, the happy-clappy brigade friendly in a worrying way, the Christian Scientists felt insufficiently like a church, the United Reformed too like a bank. The Jehovah’s Witness’ literature was so full of judgement and righteousness that he came no closer than the Kingdom Hall’s car park, then he lost nerve and went to the Society of Friends on Northwood Road instead. But the Quakers met in a place that didn’t even pretend to be a church and 1 he grew so bored by the hour’s silence that he fell asleep, and then was so irritated by the kind smiles they gave him at the hour’s end that he left with gratifying rudeness, spurning with a wordless sneer their offer of coffee and biscuits.

Of finding a home in one of them: the church had found a use for him. Patience wished to retire as secretary of the PCC and saw to it that e was chosen in her stead. He became a regular reader of lessons and taker of collections. No children or parents came near the church, as it had no Sunday school, so there was no risk of him having his background investigated. In less than a year, he found he had become quite drawn in. Patience had some of her late father’s suits let out and turned up to fit him. With these and a selection of the dead man’s shirts and ties he was almost respectable again. Outwardly, at least.

A telling observation about Modest Carson: surely uninvited. Nuala imagined he was the sort of person who haunted weddings and funerals to sup second­hand on the emotion and enjoy a transitory taste of being a member rather than an outcast. He was the only one of them, she noticed, who had knelt to pray, pointedly mask­ing his face in his fat little hands, because this was his church, his hour for devotion, and he wasn’t about to let a mere wedding get in the way.

On Barnaby’s preaching: His sermons were never long and sometimes they were very short indeed but involved significant pauses in which he directed everyone to think about or imagine something before he continued. He was, she came to realize, unlike most priests in his use of silence. The idea that sprang to mind when one thought priest was of someone talking, probably too much, of someone imposing his voice on one. Yet to conjure up Barnaby’s priesthood, his sermons or his services, was to remember the quality of their silences.

And of his fairly modern view: He was strongly against missionaries who sought to convert people away from an existing religion. This had been a cause of some conflict when he first took on his post, because one of the more forceful members of the PCC was of the saving the heathen mind-set and for some years money had been regularly sent to a mission specifically for the conversion of Muslims in Paris. Barnaby put a stop to that and he encouraged donations to missions whose emphasis lay on practicalities, improvement of sanitation, housing, education. He fostered connections with a mission in Sudan, where his sister Alice had died.

There is a warning for people who place all their relationship eggs into one basket: Christos really loved her. She had never felt so loved, so needed, so special, so absolutely at the centre of a man’s world. Little by little he isolated her from most of her old friends, subtly encouraging her to fall out with them when they criticized her new life or, worse, her husband, or convincing her they were envious of her superior skill as an artist.

Domestic abuse is well-described: The first time he beat her it was over nothing she could have foreseen — some imagined slight she had made in a conversation with friends of his — and he was so apologetic, so devastated afterwards that she found herself apologizing for having upset him in the first place. The first time she assumed it would be an isolated incident. And the second time, when she let a pan of rice boil dry. And the third, when she forgot to drop off his dry cleaning.

There is a very good description of the house in Bradford-on- Avon. I am fairly sure it is a house that I pass often.

 I liked the mention of opium poppies being used to decorate the church for a wedding.

However, there are some chronological inconsistencies: how could Modest move his business to online in the 1970s? Also, Barnaby seems to have been a vicar at the age of twenty-three. In fact, you can’t be ordained deacon and start being a curate until age twenty-four. In those days, he would serve two curacies and so couldn’t be a vicar until age thirty.

Although the author knows a lot about church life, you don’t you don’t use the oil of chrism to anoint the dying. You use the oil of unction.

He was up to date on writing about wayside shrines at the site of a death. Something which became popular with the death of Princess Diana.

I like the idea of needing to drink gin to read the Book of Revelation/Apocalypse.

I also like the thoughts about swearing an oath, in court, on a book that forbids the swearing of oaths.

And the observation about visiting clergy: Oh. Another priest. Ghastly little man. Quite ghastly. You’ll meet him before too long. Breath that would bring down a bustard.’

One could question the issue of suicide. Maybe the macho former team mates couldn’t face visiting Len and continue including him in their circle. Men tend not to show feelings, would have to sit rather than stand with him in a pub, might have to take him to the toilet. Maybe Len pushed them away as he did to his fiancée. On the morning of the day we met, there was a television programme about two former rugby players who had had serious accidents who found new ‘goals’ which gave them a new reason for living. Then again, different people handle things differently.

There is also a review of this book written by an individual before the group discussed it here

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1 Comment »

  1. […] There is a more up to date review at https://gaymensbookclubbristol.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/a-perfectly-good-man-patrick-gale-2/ […]

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