In a familial embrace

 

Landscape and a colourful family history inspire British novelist Patrick Gale

 

GEOGRAPHY is important to Patrick Gale. Living at Lands End in Cornwall, he identifies himself as the westernmost novelist in England (displacing John Le Carre from that role). No less important than physical mapping is Gale's emotional atlas, which is why, in his dozen novels and two collections of shorter fiction, he has mined his ``where I come from'' to supply the raw material for his creative worlds.


``The subject I go back to time and again is the family,'' he says. ``It's the bottomless subject, there's always another aspect to dig into. But I look at it through different mirrors each time: you take any three members of the same family and each time they'll have a completely different narrative based on the same events.''


His literary narratives are always intimate and often subversive or irreverent, and his novels are distinguished by shrewd wisdom, wit and compassion. It's an approach he has again adopted for his 13th novel, Notes from an Exhibition. In it, Gale has fashioned a leading character at once monstrous and marvellous, an obsessive painter afflicted by brilliance and bipolarity whose death leaves her husband and children with a legacy of emotional devastation.


In the novel, set mainly in Penzance, the seaside Cornish town near where he lives, Gale explores madness, creativity, identity, the nature of family and the resilience of belief. The book is episodic, layered in snippets and glimpses. ``It has a challenging structure,'' Gale says. ``It forces the reader to play detective and to join the dots. But I think they are stimulated by that.'' It is typical Gale territory, uncommon lives explored with uncommon insight.


Gale's background predisposes him to the unusual. His father was a prison governor and his early years were spent around Wandsworth Prison amid the lags and lifers who were the family's gardeners and childminders. He was a child prodigy with an angelic voice that won him a scholarship to the choral school of Winchester Cathedral at the age of eight.
He acted at Oxford with Hugh Grant and tried to earn an Equity card while working as a singing waiter. He failed but managed to write a novel on his order pad. Or two: on the same day in 1985 his first two books were published, and at 23 he threw in acting aspirations for literary inspiration. He has never relinquished music, however, and still sings in choirs, plays in Penzance's orchestral society and is chairman of the St Endellion Summer Festival at Port Isaac, North Cornwall. Music has underscored almost all his work, which makes his latest novel an anomaly.


In a similar way, Notes from an Exhibition ``for once does not draw very much on either of my parents' characters, unlike Rough Music, which was very closely based on them. This is much more about siblings ... I was worried about how my sister would respond, but luckily she loves the novel.''


His sister, an epidemiologist, had a lengthy battle with mental illness that Gale, the youngest of four children, drew on, ``more in the sense of my experiences as a child of visiting her in these terrible snake pits she was put into''.  He was intrigued by the link between bipolarity and creativity, and by ``how many brilliantly creative people take enormous risks psychologically by playing with that madness and drive themselves to the brink to get that creative buzz''.


He also discovered ``the very queasy relationship between lithium and motherhood'', of how it is extremely difficult to conceive if you are on lithium: ``I wanted to write about a creative, bipolar woman whose family existed only because she wanted to paint so much that she took herself off the lithium that balanced her.''


FOR the past eight years, Gale has shared a farmhouse where his partner Aidan's ancestors have farmed for nine centuries. The air bears a heady perfume of brine and bog and bovine. On the 120ha farm, they grow ``butterflies and beetles, cauliflowers and cattle''. Or at least they fatten steers and ``try not to become attached to them'', Gale says: ``But we do hand feed them during winter and inevitably get to know their personalities.''


The house is slate-tiled downstairs with large fireplaces, 18th-century door trims, plentiful paintings on the walls and a music corner with piano that is Aidan's and a cello that is his.
``I have never had a very strong sense of self but I feel rooted here emotionally,'' Gale says. ``Cornwall claims me like no other place ever has.'' It's the landscape, ``and that end-of-the-line feeling you get in the wilder parts of California. It's no accident there are a lot of hippies around here; there's nowhere farther to go, it's a kind of port of last resort, with a very strong pagan thing going on, bubbling beneath all the Christianity.''


When you look on the map, he says, ``you notice that all these wonderful old churches are built very close to ancient pagan sites ... there's a bit of dancing in circles on midsummer's night going on, and the local hospital actually has a white witch on its books along with a Catholic priest and a Protestant vicar''. Although he is ``very rooted'' in his ``C of E background'', Notes from an Exhibition has a heroically stoic father who is a Quaker.


Gale had to wean himself from going to Quaker meetings once he'd finished his research: ``Quakerism is so seductive because it is completely non-judgmental.'' Unlike literary critics.
His books are bestsellers in Australia and in Britain, but they are not fully embraced at home by the critical mafia. ``My books sell fairly well but because they are about very English, very middle-class families they are thought of by a handful of influential critics as being lowbrow,'' Gale says. ``They don't press the right buttons to make it on to a Booker or Whitbread short list.''


This hurts, his demeanour suggests. But he consoles himself that he doesn't write for the critics anyway. ``What gives me the greatest buzz when I write is the element of ventriloquism: I like to lose myself totally in the book, which is ironic when I always end up writing about my own family,'' he says. ``But I like to feel I have disappeared and that the characters have taken over ... and if you get it right, I think readers also have the same illusion, that they have inhabited someone else.''


His readership tends to be female because ``women are more interested than men in reading about relationships, and their analysis and changing nature''. Which is patently his own preference. ``Oh, definitely. I'm not sure how that happened but it's probably partly because as a child I was surrounded by women. The earliest conversations I remember eavesdropping on were my mother and various aunts dissecting why a marriage didn't work, and what was wrong and what was needed.''


That has made him a sucker for soap operas. ``I'm a recovering addict, I have to try really hard not to be involved. I'm also addicted to (radio serial) The Archers, and of course I'm married into that here.'' He gestures embracingly. ``Aidan's family is just two fields away, his parents and his uncles, aunts and cousins are all close by. It's just like living in an Archers story-line.'' The great thing about becoming a novelist, he says, is that ``all the rubbish jobs you've ever done and every horrible experience you've ever had, none of it is wasted. I get so much out of my life, even the dreary days.'' Writers are like magpies and without shame, ``although you have to be careful about using people ... have I mentioned that I write about family obsessively?''


After 20 years of excavation, I ask, is there any area of his family life he hasn't quarried? ``Oh, I'm sure there must be ... in fact I was hunting around in the family documents recently and I found this unfinished memoir that my mother's mother wrote, which is absolutely fascinating. She came from a big, very badly behaved family; her mother was one of 15 children, some of whom did appalling things like marry their daughters off to their boyfriends so they could carry on having access to them. A lot of that, a lot of alcoholics, a lot of raw, and I mean raw, material there.''


And he smiles like someone who feels a book or two coming on.


Notes from an Exhibition (Fourth Estate, $27.99) is out now.


 

This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian, 8 September 2007. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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