Facing the music

This is my review of Rough Music by Patrick Gale.

Why is forty-year-old, openly gay, successful bookshop owner Will considered by his “best friend” Harriet to need therapy sessions? We sense from the hook of the opening chapter that his glib talk of loving his parents and his “very, very happy” childhood masks some family trauma. This is gradually revealed to us in chapters which alternate between two time frames, the present and more than thirty years earlier, with most scenes set in blue house overlooking a Cornish beach which Will’s parents rented for a fateful holiday long ago when he was eight, and which his sister Poppy has hired again, inadvertently or perhaps not, as a fortieth birthday present, to which he agrees to take his now ageing parents for a break.

I enjoyed the wry humour of the innocent young Will, confusingly called Julian, being led astray, even to the extent of becoming an unwitting accomplice to serious crimes, by the misnamed “trusties”, old lags allowed to tend his prison governor father John’s gardens. Yet, despite some powerful dramatic moments – often coming with unexpected brutality out of the blue, the plot proves much less important than the characters.

In minutely-observed scenes Patrick Gale shows great insight as he takes us inside the heads of his three main characters: Julian/Will growing up as a sensitive little boy, trying to make sense of the adult world and his budding sense of being gay, seeking company in books; his musical, free-spirit of a mother Frances who has drifted into a restrictive marriage with a decent but uptight and hidebound man, and father John himself, who displays a more sympathetic personality beneath the surface, although unable to express the love he feels for his wife. His desire to “accumulate enough small, loving gestures to make something big enough for her to notice” is poignantly undermined by her development of early-onset Alzheimers – not a spoiler since this is clear from the beginning. Like mother, like son, Frances and Will share good intentions combined with a capacity to cause pain without meaning to.

The author has not extended his great skill in developing characters to the secondary roles played by, for instance, Harriet and Will’s gay lovers whom I did not find convincing. Also, the aftermath of the book’s dramatic climax seemed disjointed and underdeveloped, plus I found it hard to believe that such an observant and in some ways perceptive child as Will could apparently forget certain striking events from his childhood.

Overall, this is an absorbing, often moving tale with some astute comments on life and moments of comedy to ease the tragedy.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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