This is the first book I’ve read by Patrick Gale: I have A Place Called Winter waiting at home to be read but, with a transatlantic flight before me, Facing the Tank‘s e-book format pushed it to the top of my list. What was I expecting? I’m not quite sure, but it wasn’t this: a profoundly quirky exploration of purpose, love and belonging in a small country town, where normal life is thrown into disarray by something which might just be a miracle.
Barrowcester (pronunced ‘Brewster’) is an English cathedral town, the kind of quaint place which pulls in foreign tourists by the coachload to admire its historic buildings and makes a comfortable living through the sale of cream teas and fudge. Yet to live there is to negotiate a whole skein of unspoken rules and obligations, as the American academic Evan Kirby discovers when he arrives to research his latest book. Evan specialises in the history of ideas and, following on from his successful first book on the history of hell, he has inevitably moved on to exploring heaven in the sequel. His personal life, however, is very far from heaven. Released from an unsatisfying marriage by divorce, he finds himself floundering in the unaccustomed state of freedom and has come to Barrowcester as a way to escape the trials of the world, and make progress on his manuscript.
Alongside Evan, we meet various members of Barrowcester society, who find themselves in a similar moment of transition. Beneath the placid surface of this community, waters run deep. There’s Emma, coming to terms with the recent death of her father, and trying to decide whether she wants to spend the rest of her life living in his shadow. It would be easy to carry on as the late Dean’s spinster daughter, but Emma finds herself longing for more. Across town, her godson Crispin is settling in – uneasily – to his first term at the boarding school Tatham’s, haunted by a very unfortunate encounter with his beloved spaniel. The interior designer Fergus is trying to rebuild his life in the absence of his partner, and struggling with the recent arrival of his elderly and increasingly difficult mother. For Dawn, who has become a Satanist in the absence of any other options, a long-standing prayer is about to be answered.
But there are two key arrivals whose impact will nudge the community out of its comfortable complacency. One is a prodigal: Madeleine Merluza (the not-so-penitent Magdalen), who returns to her mother’s house bristling with defiance after accidentally getting knocked up by a cardinal (hey, these things happen). As the neighbours relish the scandal, and the local press descends on Madeleine’s doorstep, Madeleine herself begins to be disarmed by her mother’s scholarly American lodger. As for the other arrival, perhaps he’d never even left. When the cathedral decides to relocate the tomb of their patron saint, St Boniface, strange things begin to occur. A flight of doves arises from the tomb; apparitions of enormously tall blond men start to appear across the town; and, most troubling of all, the Bishop – the troubled rationalist Gavin Tree – finds himself trying to explain a saint’s body which features a seven-foot-tall skeleton with wings.
Barrowcester is about to witness a period of thorough, but very genteel confusion. As change sweeps outward from the cathedral, the residents and visitors find themselves coming together in new and unexpected ways, and being forced to confront the outer world in a way that simply hasn’t ever happened before. The result is heart-warming but definitely different. It reminded me of something I can’t quite put my finger on, but the closest I can get to is Mr Golightly’s Holiday meets Midsomer Murders, without the murders. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure that there are deeper layers of allegory and meaning that I haven’t caught first time round.
Having come to this without having read any Patrick Gale before, and therefore having no preconceptions about his work, I enjoyed it but couldn’t help feeling a little baffled at the end – I hesitate to say it was anticlimactic, but there was a slight element of, ‘Oh, is that it?’ Nevertheless, Gale has absolutely captured the parochial nature of small towns and villages, the subtle hierarchies that dictate society, and the gossip and secrets that bubble under the surface. He’s then ramped everything up to eleven and added a good dash of spiritual enigma for good measure, but it’s done with a gentle wit that’s very appealing. I think A Place Called Winter might be somewhat less bubbly and more serious, but on the basis of Facing the Tank, I’m very keen to start reading as soon as I’m home.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about the odd title, there is an explanation – bizarre, but very funny.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review