Having begun to settle into my new market town life I have been casting around for ways of getting to know like-minded people. Because of my U3A connections I already have a number of good friends here but they are all of a certain age and I would like to widen my scope of acquaintance. So, I trotted down to the local library last week and suggested that they might want to host a new book group, not one where we all read the same book (I already belong to two of those) but one like my first ever group where we came together once a month to talk about whatever we had read since the last meeting and swap ideas for future reads. It’s a format that works well because no one is under pressure to have read a particular text and it is possible to come along even if you’ve had a nightmare month and read nothing yet still get something out of the evening.
I was reminded of that earlier group as I began Patrick Gale’s latest novel, Take Nothing With You, because it was there that I was first introduced to Gale’s work and because of them that I became a devoted reader. I thought his last book, A Place Called Winter, was his best yet and so came to the new work with some trepidation. I should not have worried. Every now and again you come across a book that absorbs you in the way that butter absorbs a hot knife. The reading act is no effort at all, engagement is complete and ultimately the only sorrow is that the book is over. Take Nothing With You is such a book.
When we first meet Eustace he is battling both with his health and with his conscience: his health because he has been diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid and his conscience because he hasn’t told Theo, his new long distance partner, about his condition. As a final element of his treatment Eustace must swallow a radioactive capsule and then spend a couple of days, first in a lead-lined room and then avoiding anyone who might be vulnerable to his still radioactive self. Told to bring nothing with him that he won’t mind leaving behind, he is given a cheap MP3 player by his close friend, Naomi, of music for the cello, the instrument that brought them together in the first place. Incarcerated in his hospital ‘cell’ Eustace goes back in his mind to the time when he was first introduced to the cello, to his sensitive teacher, Carla Gold, and through her and her friends to an understanding of his own ‘otherness’.
As a study of a teenage boy coming to terms with his sexuality and finding his place in the often treacherous world of school and burgeoning adulthood this is pitch perfect. In part this is because much of what Eustace experiences is based on Gale’s own background. Although the setting of 1970s Weston-Super-Mare is different, Gale, like Eustace, was brought up in close proximity to what might be called an institution, in the author’s case his father was a prison governor, while Eustace’s parents run a home for old people. Like Eustace, Gale took up the cello and also studied with one of the foremost teachers of the day only to discover that a career as a professional musician was not going to materialise. (I am giving nothing away here; it is apparent from the beginning that this isn’t the route that Eustace has followed.) In fact, Eustace’s path through adolescence and to his eventual acceptance of his sexuality is, with one horrendous exception, relatively easy, given that no teenager’s journey to adulthood is ever a bed of roses. For the adults in his life, however, brought up in a far less permissive age, their enforced exploration of their own sexual identity is more tortuous and ultimately disastrous. If I wept for anyone in this novel it wasn’t for Eustace and his generation but for that of his parents, bound by the mores of a society that still condemned anything other than the sexual ‘norm’ and compelled not only to deny their true identity but to see themselves as somehow defective.
Is this as good a novel as A Place called Winter? It perhaps doesn’t raise as many issues, cover as much ground. However, as a piece of writing it is, for me, almost perfection. I can’t remember the last time I was so absorbed in a book and so invested in the characters. Interestingly, I don’t think I would propose it as a book group read. I’m not sure it is a book that would benefit from close dissection. But, if the new recommendation based group gets going then it will be the first suggestion I shall offer in the hope that I can introduce other readers to Gale’s work in the same way that I was introduced twenty or so years ago.