I have just finished A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale. I have never read a Mills & Boon romance but suspect they are like this: sweet and sentimental. It took me a month to get through it; I got to the point actually where I didn’t want to pick it up. I would have binned at page 90, when I described it on the blog as trite nonsense except it was given to me by my best friend Susan and I know she wanted me to like it.
‘Heart-wrenching’ – according to the Sunday Mirror. ‘Mesmerising’ – The Times. ‘Life Affirming’ – Sunday Express. ‘Written in a prose of beautiful lucidity . . . a tender tale of loss and love’ – Sunday Times. I pretty much hated it.
It’s about a man, Harry who discovers late in life that he is homosexual and as it is set in Edwardian England and homosexuality is strictly verboten, he leaves his wife and daughter and migrates to Canada to try his hand at farming. He endures much hardship in the cold Canadian winters, is brutally raped and for reasons that escape me, is sent to a lunatic asylum called Bethel to be cured.
It has millions of four and five-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I am not going to recite them here. Not one word wasted, according to one reviewer. A book to immerse yourself in, says another. But to me it is the worst kind of literary writing; use three words when one would do. Humourless and crammed full of adverbs. No-one ever ploughs a field; they tirelessly plough the field or they slowly plough the field or they wearily plough the field. And there are no trees in Winter, only gnarled trees or bare trees or stunted trees. Enough, already. Is this what publishers and Agents consider to be ‘good writing’? Thin story full of plot-holes and unlikely coincidences [of which another reviewer notes even Thomas Hardy would blush].
It is marginally based, with embellishments, on the true life of one of Patrick Gale’s ancestors, Harry Cane who really did emigrate to Canada in 1908. Gale describes this in an interview in The Guardian written to promote the novel. There is no evidence that the real Harry Cane was homosexual but Gale consulted with psychics who told him, ‘it may be possible’.
Structurally, he doesn’t know how to finish it and comes up with a silly, improbable, fairy-tale ending but to achieve this he has to kill-off Harry’s wife, probably the only interesting character in the entire novel. What I think is he has had to go back over the first draft and re-write the Bethel scenes into it. There is a crucial confession about two-thirds of the way through but Harry has nobody to confess it to, so Gale has had to introduce a viable third-party [the doctor at Bethel] for him to explain himself to. Otherwise Bethel has no narrative function – the horrors are never developed - and Gale is left with the loose ends of sad Cree Indians [never developed], and a misguided suicide attempt [never developed], to draw together. I am not saying the fate of the Indians or the shocking treatment of the Bethel inmates aren’t interesting but they are treated as so incidental that he would have been better to have just not tried to deal with their stories at all.
Quick word about the homosexual aspects of this. I loved Alan Hollingsworth’s witty, Booker-winning gay novel The Line of Beauty with its brilliant cuckoo-in-the-nest arc. This novel epitomises, ‘not a word wasted’.
Gale is in his mid-fifties and has a husband. I haven’t to be honest had great experiences with gay people, emotional, personal or communal for that matter. When I was growing up, prejudice was rife but this is not the place probably to relate my own examples of highly-strung blokes that easily take offence. In business, they are a bit like black people – they expect you to be prejudiced and you have to be very careful not to confirm their fears.