Ever since I read my first Patrick Gale novel (Little Bits of Baby, 1989) I've loved his writing, but with his latest books he just seems to get better and better.
Most memorable for me have been Friendly Fire (2005), a funny and tragic portrayal of adolescence in an English public school (whose ending had Daughter the Elder weeping inconsolably on a summer barging holiday in France) and Notes from an Exhibition (2007), about the emotional havoc wreaked by a troubled artist on her marriage and children (which had me briefly quite seriously considering becoming a Quaker. Do you sense a familial trait of becoming over-involved with books?).
His latest novel, A Perfectly Good Man, is set in Cornwall, a landscape Gale knows well (he lives in remote Lands End with his partner, a farmer). The perfectly good man of the title is Barnaby Johnson, a parish priest for a rural community ... not exactly a fashionable choice of hero, but Barnaby turns out to be far more interesting than one might imagine, and not immune to sin.
From a riveting and unsettling opening, the narrative zig zags backward and forward in time, focusing on individual histories (Barnaby, his wife, biological daughter and adopted Vietnamese son, significant figures amongst his parishioners), but these are so skilfully woven together that it flows beautifully, his characters' souls laid bare as the plot gradually converges like the bits of a jigsaw slowly fitting together. There's a great authenticity to his characters and although this book is above all an easy and totally engaging read, Gale had me reflecting often on the ambiguity of that title, the nature of goodness and of faith.
Another book that has had that wonderful effect of transporting me heart and soul into a different reality is Fortunate, the latest novel by writer Elizabeth Wix, who is also the author of two of my favourite blogs, About New York and My Life by Buster.
We meet Jane, the fortunate child who is at the heart of the story, at the beginning of the book as an older woman who finds herself in an unfamiliar Polish town, as she embarks on a search for traces of her birth mother. From here on, the narrative becomes the stories of two parallel lives in wartime Europe. Gisela, a young German woman, suffers unimaginable hardships and losses as the events of the war unfold. Meanwhile Ruth, in middle class, rural Kent, England, deals with day to day wartime privations and anxieties in the relative comfort of family and home. Wix’s skill as a writer is to make both women’s experiences equally absorbing while weaving the threads together so that their paths tantalisingly converge and diverge in unexpected ways.
The fact that the story is based on real events in Elizabeth Wix’s personal history makes it even more intriguing. But it’s her fluid and effortless writing that draws one in – I read this over successive late nights, unable to put it down.
Here is the lovely Elizabeth Wix (I had the pleasure of meeting her late last year, but did not take this photo) and you can find her book here. Read the first couple of pages and I guarantee you will be hooked. And right now I'm off to search for her other titles ...