This is my review of A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale.
Earnest, well-intentioned, bookish and almost comically impractical, unconscious of the good looks which attract women to his aid, Barnaby Johnson has probably become a vicar for the wrong reasons.
This is the kind of tale that relies heavily on the way in which the facts are revealed, often through small hints and clues. Moving back and forth in time, each chapter focuses on one of the seven main characters at a given age, so that we gradually learn about their interrelationships, insights on life, and different perceptions of certain events and of each other. There is pleasure to be gained from "knowing more than the characters" at many points in the story, being aware, for instance, that two people are fated to have an affair, or to drift apart.
Frequently very funny, the narrative may turn like quicksilver to move or even shock the reader. When you analyse it, not that much happens, yet this is unarguably a page turner, which gives pause for thought, as to the way in which events have often profound and unforeseen effects and as regards human resilience and the capacity to survive and feel quite positive despite adversity.
Unfolding against the background of a vividly evoked Cornwall, the author apparently describes real villages, churches and old tin mining areas in the vicinity of Penzance. By contrast, real events are only hinted at. For instance, we know that when 11 year old Carrie goes up to London with her father Barnaby on a tin miners' demo against Margaret Thatcher, the news is full of the American space shuttle disaster, so it must be 1986….So, you find yourself working out the dates of other chapters. Just occasionally, there is a small glitch. For instance, when Barnaby is 29, Carrie surely cannot be more than four and so seems unlikely to be capable of making the wooden birthday gift as described.
Although generally very entertaining, the characters tend to be caricatures or stereotypes, and some of the minor players, such as Carrie's friend Morwenna, are too thinly sketched. I was struck by the feminine tone of the male writer, his insight, for instance, into the thoughts of Barnaby's stolidly practical yet privately sensitive wife Dorothy, and realised that Patrick Gale must be gay – I felt that the book strikes an overly sentimental note only when he touches on topics which must be dear to his heart, like the church blessing of a civil union between two young women.
Overall, any reservations are quite minor. Although I agree with reviewers who have thought that the story could have probed deeper and the ending may seem a little too "feel good", it is very readable with a no doubt deceptively easy flow of words over which Gale has probably laboured with great care.