A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

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.

Notes From an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

[Updated review] This month, I’ve been rediscovering Patrick Gale, a novelist that I first came across several years ago.

Gale is the author of Notes from an Exhibition, a beautifully written novel about a bipolar artist called Rachel Kelly. More than any other writer I’ve come across, Gale writes with real insight into bipolar disorder. He shows the impact of Rachel’s illness on her children, her husband and her creativity.

Rachel goes off her meds each time she’s pregnant and creates her most powerful artistic work but the pregnancies are followed by low periods during which she is frequently hospitalised while a new regime of meds is sorted out.

The novel unfolds through a series of perspectives spread across time and told from the point of view of Rachel’s children. Each chapter is prompted by a note accompanying a picture in a posthumous exhibition of Rachel’s work.

Of all the books I have ever read that touched on bipolar disorder / manic depression, Notes from an Exhibition is by far the best – and that is quite a statement because this is work of fiction. There have been some powerful biographies on the subject like the excellent Kay Redfield Jamison ‘s Unquiet Mind but Patrick Gale tells a wonderful, true, clear, sensitive story – beautifully written, beautifully developed.

As a piece of fiction, this is a terrific read but for anyone whose family has been touched by bipolar disorder, it is much, much more. It is a relatively short book and easy to read. I strongly recommend it.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher via Netgalley.