28 November 2015

Book Review: A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

Review by Tom Newsom

I’d first heard about this book on Radio 2’s Book Club - they were full of warm praise for it - in early 2015. And although by the time I came across it in my local library, it meant that I knew the shape of the plot and what to expect, it did not disappoint. It’s the sort of book where that doesn’t weaken it, where the journey is more important than the twists, although there are some big ones.

It’s all about a man, Harry Cane. The book’s early chapters trace his cosy life in Edwardian England, from his early age to marriage and family responsibilities, before everything changes. We’re under his skin for most of this book, for he’s a character who never quite fits in anywhere, even though he tries - not in formal society, nor in the vast prairies of Canada, where he is forced to escape to. Even though the landscape changes vastly, the book doesn’t lose its footing - now he’s got even more to learn to become a farmer and landowner, to fit in with the tiny rural communities he finds there, and importantly to discover himself.

One of the quotes on the back of my copy says it “manages to be both tender and epic”, which is a perfect description. It covers a lot of ground but we never lose sight of the main character and what it all means for him.

Whilst reading it I was wondering if I’d recommend it to anyone unreservedly. And whilst it’s a cracking, solid book, there are a few scenes of violence that means it’s not a comfortable read at times. But then it’s not a comfortable adventure - and whilst there are terrible events, the tone always allows an everyday humanity and a feeling of hope afterwards. If anything it’s a book about survivors.

You can sort of tell it’s based on a true story, very loosely: the main character’s background came from one of the author’s mysterious relatives, which he then breathed new life into their actions by creating a character. He’ll never know what they were really like, or why they relocated to Canada, but the motives here feel real. The whole book has the ring of truth; I think that’s down to the research, plus the level of detail that’s then put in the writing. It doesn’t proclaim its historical accuracy on every page, but due to the compressed, fast paced plot (some big time jumps), there’s a lot of scene setting, well told. It also makes it a great read, one of those books you can really lose yourself in.

The historical detail doesn’t stop at the world the author has created either - it’s present in the character’s heads and how they see themselves. As the writer has said - “The challenge was to inhabit a homosexual life in a time when there are no words to describe any of the things the character feels or does.” It’s no spoiler to say that you honestly don’t notice this linguistic, mental gap when you’re reading it, although it is very much there. This book feels like a story very much of its time, even if any story like it wouldn’t be told for over half a century later. And I think the secret strength to this book is the characters: if the world around them felt real, then they feel doubly so, rounded and authentic - they make the most realistic of mistakes.

It’s an exquisite book, full of foreboding, adventure and human truths. Well worth reading, and it will stay with you for some time after.

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