Book Review: A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

Genre: Historical Fiction, LGBT+
Publishing Info: 2015 by Tinder Press (Ebook version)
Pages: 338

Publisher’s Summary:
To find yourself, sometimes you must lose everything.

A shy but privileged elder son, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair to little to shake the foundations of his muted existence – until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest force him to abandon his wife and child and sign up for emigration to Canada.

Remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. And yet it is here, isolated in a seemingly harsh landscape, under the threat of war and madness that the fight for survival will reveal in Harry an inner strength and capacity for love beyond anything he has ever known.

A Place Called Winter (Patrick Gale, 2015)

Starting as an investigation into a man who was a mystery in the author’s own family, A Place Called Winter feels as much a historical commentary that is still relevant to contemporary society as it is an enjoyable read about fighting to survive in a barren land in spite of living with trauma.

The premise at the centre of the narrative is that the protagonist, slightly introverted and stuttering Harry Cane, has been moved from a high-security prison to a mental institution in the early part of the twentieth century for unknown reasons at the start of the text. The rest of the narrative is consequently described in past tense, in a series of conversations he has with the Doctor who runs the institution. This is an effective opening as it throws the readers immediately into a confusing and uninviting scenario, where screaming patients are being dunked into baths to calm them down, as well as causing them to wonder exactly why this person is in this situation and is later moved to an institution because he is of ‘special interest’ to the doctor in charge.

The institution segments are interesting in their own right, as the doctor who runs the establishment seems almost obsessed with genders and sexualities that are non-conforming to the white Christian households of western civilisation. There are individuals moved there for partaking in homosexual relationships and more developed, thoughtful inclusions – the most powerful of those being the use of the character of Ursula, a Cree individual who is also two-spirit, in effect a third gender, that is seen as a blessing within Native American communities yet is perceived as alien and frightening within Christian America at the time. Their role in Harry’s enlightenment – the recollection of the crucial moments and relationships in his past – allowed the protagonist to let his past go, a very powerful moment that says a lot about the author himself. As a gay man, I really appreciated the whole narrative and the representation of the relationships Harry formed, with one person in particular. However, it would be wrong to suggest that gay men were the only group persecuted for their sexuality of gender, this was just the tip of a very large iceberg, and the inclusion of Ursula as a major character within the institution scenes was respectively done, yet a powerful statement at the same time. The fact that the doctor was revealed to have no interest in these remarkable individuals apart from wanting them ‘cured’ was a cruel twist but one that again made a statement on the author’s part.

The primary reason why I think that the settings and characters pop as much as they do is down to the way the author uses contrast to great effect. Every setting feels like a contrast to the one that came before it. The violent chaos of the opening section in the high-security prison is a world away from the gentile upper-class workings of two brothers in Edwardian England, which again contrasts completely with the isolated and barren Canadian prairies that the protagonist settles on. With each setting change, the author adapts the focus of the text; for Edwardian London the focus is on people and conversation, with multiple people in conversation with each other, whereas the Canadian scenes are treated with greater description of the surroundings and the work the characters do on the land and the homesteads to be able to survive. In a similar way, the characters are also contrasts of each other; the aggressive Troels is far different from the softer Paul, whilst Harry’s two wives, Winifred and Petra, couldn’t be further apart in terms of personalities and attitudes. These contrasts ultimately create a more powerful text that allows each part of Harry’s tale to stand out for itself.

On the flip side to this, the visible divides between segments of Harry’s life did highlight which parts of the novel weren’t as engrossing or effective. The first third to half of the novel, set in Edwardian London with the Cane brothers and later the Wells family, was a bit of a slow burner to read, with several chapters centering on dry events and characters that paled in comparison to the vibrancy with which Gale wrote when the narrative moved to Canada. The payoff did arrive with an explosive moment when Harry’s life is turned upside down and, looking into what inspired the author to produce this text, the background knowledge into the protagonist’s life was needed in order for the audience to see him as the author did upon researching his inspiration in his family’s history. As a result, this part took longer to read than I would have hoped for, however the brilliant second half made up for it in spades, as the author weaves an emotional story involving revenge and war. Though some might see the closing moments as slightly too optimistic, it was the kind of payoff that readers invested in Harry’s life would want.

Verdict: A Place Called Winter was my first foray into the work of Patrick Gale, and it was a very enjoyable one at that. Mixing together the historical context of being a gay man in the early 20th century with some powerfully contrasting settings and characters, Gale has created a novel that is much more than what it appears. It is as much as social commentary on the attitudes towards individuals with non-conforming genders and sexualities as it is a recreation of the life of a man who was a family mystery to the author themselves. It will definitely not be my last Patrick Gale read.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆½

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