“O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!”
Patrick Gale’s novel epitomises everything a good writer wants to do in their own writing. I began reading ‘A Place Called Winter’ a few days ago and, at first, I thought it was a slow-burner. The protagonist, Harry Cane, is discovered, at the beginning of the novel, in an institution, thrown into cold baths to aid his recovery. He has done something which cannot be named. The time is just after the first world war, the setting is Canada, and the landscape is both rugged and beautiful.
The reader knows Harry is suffering; his attendants are violent or negligent and he is stoical, hiding the secret of what he has done, what has caused him to be immured. The story pulls you in, but Gale signals the format the story will take: flashbacks to Harry’s past, building to reveal what he has done, occasionally flipping back to his treatment and recovery so that a satisfactory dénouement can take place, which will be his being discharged from the institution and returning to whatever life has left for him.
Of course, Patrick Gale is much cleverer than that, and the story which unfolds is complex and fascinating. My initial thoughts about Harry were that he is a little spoiled, weak, feckless, but this is not the case. Soon, I admire his resolve and I follow his self-discovery, finding a man I not only understand, but come to admire. I imagine writing the book did the same for Gale,enabling to understand his character’s background, history and motivation, as Harry Cane was his relative.
Gale’s writing is perfect. The first rule of writing may be to enable your reader to feel safe in the writer’s hands and then to take them on a journey they believe in and commit to. Gale writes beautifully, but he is not over-sentimental. It would be easy to create Harry as a character who we perceive to be a victim, but he is heroic, human and there is a tenderness in his dealings with other characters.
The story is fast paced; as Harry realises his sexual orientation, he lurches from one crisis to another in a way which is plausible and poignant. He is abused, rejected, committed to a life of hardship and despair but he still emerges triumphant and heroic. Gale leads his reader through vivid descriptions which are never indulgent; the novel is historically accurate and his backdrop and characters are created with confident, detailed prose.
Harry begins his journey in England. He is, initially, comfortably rich and languorous. His banishment to Canada, to farm the land, enables immense contrast in backdrop and language, and it is against the stark hardship of his new, solitary life as he works on the land that Harry’s character develops. His character changes: he is bolder, undaunted: his greatest triumph is to accept and love himself and to be accepted and loved by those around him in a time when social acceptance was very different. As a reader, I find myself made sharply aware of old prejudices, which provokes a comparative analysis of our modern world views.
All the secondary characters are credible and beautifully drawn, from the revolting Troels Munck and the admirable Petra and Paul Slaymaker to the credible Ursula/Little Bear, who is a truly tragic but inspirational character.
Gale signals clearly what will happen to Harry. At first, I wondered if such clear pointers would spoil the story. As soon as he meets the strong, sympathetic Petra and her brother, with his enigmatic history, I knew what would happen, particularly once Troels was thrown into the mix. But this clear signal did not impact negatively, neither on the storytelling itself nor in my suspension of disbelief and my commitment to the characters. It makes for superb reading.
I wonder if there is something autobiographical in Gale’s writing: he and Cane both show respect and empathy with the female characters, and Cane is both isolated yet sociable, gifted with a warmth and understanding of others. Cane thrives in the hardship and beauty of the Canadian landscape and this is, in a way, a metaphor for how he survives discrimination and emerges as someone who can reclaim his sexuality and passion. The descriptions of blossoming love and an awareness of desire are beautifully written, tentative and naive at first, developing into something as forceful and naturally resilient as the Canadian terrain.
‘A Place Called Winter’ is a beautifully well-written book. The flashbacks, the foreshadowing, the stunning use of language and the convincing and likeable characters are all perfectly contrived to keep the reader immersed and moved.
For me, ‘A Place called Winter’ is a book of exceptional artistry and aesthetic appeal, and a must-read.