I’ll be honest, I prefer his early, funny ones (funny peculiar) to the outwardly sensible middle-aged Radio 4-listener-orientated works that have made him finally rich and popular. He took more risks. He wrote about people I’d want to know. Deep down, he’s still not quite as blandly well-behaved as he makes out, still closer to Jenny Diski than Joanna Trollope but it takes more digging to find it.
This one is primarily set all on one day in June but skipping around in the pasts of the two main characters (yes, I know, Joyce and Virginia Woolf did that too). Both of them now have responsibilities, caring for ailing relatives. They had a relationship at Oxford in the 80s and, after a chance reunion, might try to rekindle it but for their circumstances. He’s stuck in a loveless marriage but can’t even pay enough attention to it to end it while he’s researching the illness that’s afflicting his brother. She is just so messed up that nobody else has stuck around. You get the picture. It’s not entirely as straighforward as that, though. One element of this book that looks like it might date it is that it considers the changes in communications since they were living together, back when a note under a door might have been life-changing. Most novelists are sort of in denial about how many of their plots might not work by the time the book’s in print. This at least has people thinking about it.
Gale generally has a wise child as the moral compass of his books. This time, most of the rather reined-in humour comes from a dotty old lady who, despite her osteoporosis, insists on doing her gardening and housework naked. Professor Jellicoe is described as an ’eminent virologist’ (some of you will know why this very specific turn of phrase rang a bell for me). The juggling with time-lines is deftly done and I read this novel in a single sitting. As a toe in the water it’s a good way to see if you want to investigate his more ambitious works, although as yet the library doesn’t have the more reckless 80s novels. His more commercially successful works are well-represented in our stock, though.
By Tat Wood