Monthly Archive for October, 2015

A Place Called Winter

An apt title with cold October rain and we arrive at book group in the light and leave as darkness has fallen. Our book for discussion this month was Patrick Gale’s first foray into historical fiction ‘A Place Called Winter’, a story he based on his great-grandfather Harry Cane who, for reasons undisclosed, abandoned a wife and daughter in England in the early part of the twentieth century for a settler’s life on the Canadian Prairies.

This is where the similarities end as Gale has weaved a fictitious tale around the Harry Cane of his novel. Harry is marked by the early death of his mother, a shy stammering man who drifts through life with a private income and a brother as unlike him in temperament as he could possibly be, but with whom he has a close and loving relationship. The two bothers marry into the same family and Harry and his wife have a daughter. What changes Harry’s life is meeting a voice coach, Browning, with whom he begins a passionate affair and which on Harry’s side is a sexual and personal awakening. The relationship is exposed by a blackmailer and Harry is asked to remove himself from his wife and daughter, taking up a fortuitous offer of 160 acres of land in the Canadian Prairies as a settler, on the basis that he will learn to cultivate it within three years.

ManThis was a book that divided the group, with many praising Gale’s story as a tender, sweeping and visually appealing narrative, populated by fascinating characters. Others, including one reader who is an avid Patrick Gale fan, felt that this was a weak and unbelievable story with poor characterisation, and that it was difficult to reconcile the Harry of the end of the novel with the Harry we meet at its beginning, which I personally felt was the critical element of the book. One aspect that was universally agreed on was its conclusion, which is breathlessly rushed and anti-climactic, Gale’s writing style falling away as if he were desperate to conclude the novel and could think of no better ending. Some readers were concerned that Gale had presented unrealistic characters, including the pantomime villain Troels Munck. Others felt Monck was a realistic reflection of the type of men who made their mark in this land of opportunity.

GrassThings that appealed to me were the wonderful way that Gale portrays Harry’s sexual awakening, a liberation from the sleep-walking life as a half-formed man he has endured until that point. The shame Harry feels, his acquiescence with his family’s banishment and ultimate severed ties with his beloved brother are heart-wrenching. Harry seems to come alive as a new man in Canada, a clean slate offered to him with fresh opportunities. The book centres on themes of abandonment, imprisonment and not fitting in, with the claustrophobia of an isolated life, the lonely harshness of a prairie winter a wonderful mirror to Harry’s stifled personality and re-birth. ‘A Place Called Winter’ is a story of love and loss, of acceptance and realising true identity.

A number of the group went to hear Patrick Gale read from and discuss ‘A Place Called Winter’ at this year’s Durham Book Festival and left with the impression of an intriguing personal story of his own great-grandfather, the real Harry Cane of the novel.

Maxine has rounded up books for us to read over the next two months: November’s book is Elizabeth Strout’s ‘The Burgess Boys’ and in December we’ll discuss ‘The Herring Girl’ by local author Debbie Taylor.

Happy reading and see you all in November.

Rachel Orange