Monday, 23 March 2015

Guest Book Review: Patrick Gale - A Place Called Winter

Reviewed by Danielle Pullen

To find yourself, sometimes you must lose everything. 

A privileged elder son, and stammeringly shy, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair do little to shake the foundations of his muted existence - until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest cost him everything. 

Forced to abandon his wife and child, Harry signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies. Remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. And yet it is here, isolated in a seemingly harsh landscape, under the threat of war, madness and an evil man of undeniable magnetism that the fight for survival will reveal in Harry an inner strength and capacity for love beyond anything he has ever known before. 

In this exquisite journey of self-discovery, loosely based on a real life family mystery, Patrick Gale has created an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love.

Amazon links: Kindle or Hardcover

Harry Cane is a man who wants to fit in in a society where expectations to conform are high.  From boarding school to high society and from sanatorium to farmer, Harry travels the world in his quest to be accepted.

Born to wealth in Edwardian England, but not to kindness or love, Harry takes on the role of carer for his brother in his early life.  Yet with an awkward stammer and a dislike for social situations, he is not a natural leader and it is his gregarious brother who leads the way in London society.  Drawn into a culture where one is expected to take a wife and wear the straitjacket of society’s expectations, Harry and his brother Jack meet two sisters and both of them soon settle down to family life but this is all placed at risk when Harry’s proclivities threaten his family’s reputation.

Seeking a quick escape, he blames a lack of funds and a dip in finances and decides to try his luck overseas. With the promise of an allotted homestead in Canada, Harry leaves London for a life in the newly landed Saskatchewan prairie town of Winter.  Unshackled of the familiarity of family life and enjoying his new independence, Harry finds new friends, some who are not what they initially seem, and he is led into a circle of fear, toil and suffering.

Gale is a prolific writer but, I have to admit, not one who I was hugely familiar with. Of his seventeen novels, I had only read one before, Notes on an Exhibition, and although I did enjoy that text, it was not memorable enough for me to seek out his other work.  A Place Called Winter, however, is the kick-start I need to seek out Gale’s back catalogue.  

This novel is not a work which is an easy read.  It deals with a range of issues that are thought-provoking and there are some scenes that are so lucidly written that the brutality is smarting.  I had to put down the book and walk away to recollect myself more than once.  

In addition to Harry, most of the protagonists in A Place Called Winter are male, with only one central female character but it is to Gale’s credit that one is unable to discern whether the writer of this text is male or female.

The story is all the more scintillating when one learns that it is based on Gale’s own great-grandfather Harry Cane’s life.  He too left behind his wife and daughter to seek a new life in the Canadian town of Winter, though this is where the similarities between the two men end.

I am a reader who is very critical by nature but there was little to fault this novel.  The characters were exceedingly well drawn.  The settings were clear, particularly the contrast between the golden trappings of wealth in English society and the harsh, remote and unforgiving prairies.  The pace of the novel was regular and kept the reader entertained throughout.  If I were to criticise slightly, perhaps the ending felt a little too neatly curtailed and too swiftly wrapped up.  Having said this, however, the final scenes are satisfying and in keeping with the characters’ evolution.

In essence, A Place Called Winter, investigates how far each of us must travel in our life in order to become ourselves.  It’s a story of self-discovery and the quest for love against the odds.  

I'd like to thank Georgina at Headline for sending me a copy of A Place called Winter and Danielle for reviewing it for me. 

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