A Perfectly Good Man is an excellent title for Patrick Gale’s novel because this is a story about “goodness” and “perfection”. But don’t let the morality theme put you off. This is also a story about a man whose experiences may move you to laughter and tears as his story unfolds.
Set in Penzance, the principal character is parish priest, Father Barnaby Johnson. The story is narrated by Johnson himself as well as by members of his family and community. The timeline is non-linear — which some readers don’t like — but each chapter adds layers to Johnson’s character.
Johnson is certainly “good” — even, perhaps, “perfectly” good — although that is a question for the reader to consider as the story unfolds.
Gale writes beautifully, creating richly imagined characters and rooting them in a believable community and place. If you read his earlier novel, Notes from an Exhibition, you’ll recognise artist Rachel Kelly whose work and daughter Morwenna appear in A Perfectly Good Man.
A Perfectly Good Man begins with the suicide of a young man where Johnson finds himself unexpectedly anointing the victim. It proceeds moving across and back across time, tracing Johnson’s relationships with family and community from his own perspective as well as from the perspective of other characters, before ending with Johnson at age 8. Between those two points lie a lifetime of experience — joys, disappointments, failings, crises of faith. Warm, human, funny, thought-provoking and sad. I loved this novel. It’s left me impatient to read more Patrick Gale.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher via Netgalley for the purpose of this review.