When Harry Cane wakes up in a fresh bed in a quiet room, he doesn’t understand where he is. Where’s the noise of the institution where he’s been incarcerated for the past weeks or months? Where are the restraints and attendants? Why does he seem, confusingly, to be free? Gradually, Harry comes to understand that he is now at Bethel, a therapeutic community where the progressive doctor Gideon Ornshaw hopes to treat non-conformist patients with gentler means. Surrounded by the beautiful, wild Canadian countryside, Harry allows Gideon to coax him back into his memories of the time before he came here. Times of brute hardship, fighting to tame the untouched Canadian earth; times of hope and love; times of leisured ease in a privileged English life that never touched his heart; times of fear. Times of murder and disgrace. Harry Cane has lost all he’s ever had. But is it too late to find himself?
Intriguingly, Patrick Gale has very loosely based this novel on the story of his great-grandfather Harry Cane, who left a comfortable middle-class life in England in the early years of the 20th century and set off for the prospect of new land in Canada, leaving his wife and daughter behind. He didn’t return to English until the 1950s. What drives a man to head off into the wilderness, alone and untested, for the promise of 160 acres? What makes a man give up all the comforts of life at home in England for a world where he has to fight the elements to survive? Why did the family never talk about Harry Cane and his reasons for going? Did he leave voluntarily or was he pushed? Taking these mysteries as the basis for his story, Gale transforms his enigmatic great-grandfather into a conflicted hero on the front line of early 20th-century Canadian immigration.
Since childhood, Harry has been the shy one. He’s protected his vibrant younger brother Jack all through school, taking on the role of parent in their orphaned family of two. Now, as a man, he lives happily enough, watching Jack thrive and quietly bumbling along his own expected route. When Jack falls in love with the lively George Wells, Harry takes the easy route and courts her withdrawn sister Winnie. They marry; set up home; have a baby daughter Phyllis. And yet all is not well in their relationship. Winnie clings to the memory of a thwarted, passionate love; and Harry finds himself strangely restless. An unexpected encounter in London with the theatrical Browning gives Harry a glimpse of another kind of happiness, and he finds himself falling dizzyingly in unreciprocated love. But such things never end well and, when their liaison becomes known to his relatives, Harry is given a frank choice: let the family be publicly shamed, or start a new life in Canada.
So, Canada it is. I never knew about the floods of young Englishmen who went out to this country, on what must have then seemed the edge of the world: a wild land that promised much but required hard, backbreaking world to get there. With the help of the Mephistophelean Troels Munck, Harry finds a place as a labourer and starts to learn the rudiments of farming in this harsh climate. Time passes and, when he finally gets his own promised plot, he’s changed a lot from the soft, untried youth he was in England. But he’s still glad to discover that he has personable neighbours, the Slaymakers, brother and sister who have thrown themselves with gusto into their own farming and who are delighted to welcome a new friend into their lives. Harry begins to feel that he’s found the place where he belongs – but how far will he go to protect this happiness?
This is a very celebrated novel and there is much to love about it: Harry as the bookish hero made good; the compassion of the Slaymakers and, later, Harry’s companions at Bethel; the way that happiness is always balanced with fear. For all that, there seemed to be a lot of loose ends left unexplained or untied. I found myself frustrated by the unsatisfactory ending to Ursula’s story, in which she seems to have no purpose except to be a native American version of a ‘magical Negro’, helping Harry to come to terms with himself but doomed to be crushed in her own self-expression. I wanted to understand more about Gideon’s Bethel, and whether this is based on real historical communities. And there was something niggling, which has also niggled in Alan Hollinghurst’s novels. Of course, these are stories, to some extent, about people realising the freedom to love who they will – but it seems terribly convenient that Harry runs into so many other gay men. That Browning flirts so outrageously with him, somehow knowing what Harry feels before Harry knows himself. That, conveniently, out in the middle of the wild untamed Canadian hinterland, it just so happens that Harry’s handsome nearest neighbour is similarly inclined. And that’s without the slightly melodramatic and mawkish ending. I suppose what I mean is that these elements seemed ‘forced’ by the author, which undermined my pleasure in the rest of the story.
Having said all this, it’s still a moving story about a man confronting nature and his own nature at once, finding himself in the process of overcoming the challenges of the raw world. We’ll never know how close Gale’s hero comes to the real Harry Cane, but it’s a thoughtful and largely compelling tale: as always, with Gale, beautifully written. It just didn’t quite do it for me.