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Book Club: A Place Called Winter

Book Club: A Place Called Winter

A review of this week's Book Club title, A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

Posted on 5th October 2015 by Sally Campbell

The book is based on a true story, and is all the more poignant and moving because of it. Patrick Gale used research into his own, enigmatic great-grandfather, Harry Cane, to write this story. He began with only a few inconsistent and tantalising details: that this rich family man, with a baby daughter, upped and left his family, and the comforts of Edwardian England, to be alone in the harsh, near-wilderness of Canada, never to be welcomed back into the family again. From this, he envisaged a solution to the mystery – an answer that he felt fitted. The book is a hymn to his ancestor.

Steampunk daydreams of this natty time of gorgeous, hand-made wares and steam-powered engines – but one thing that makes Steampunk fun is that it transplants a modern perspective onto Victorian/Edwardian relationships. The truth of our actual steam-age, was sadly a bigoted, narrow one. One where homosexuality was a crime. This book explores the often shocking behaviour of family, of ‘healers’, and of law makers towards gay men - in a time where there was almost no language to describe homosexuality. The book quotes E. M. Forster, “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature” – so was much of the Western world at this time. It is hard not to look back in anger – we have a long way to go, but, it can’t be denied, that we have come a long way since then.

Canada, in the book, is a wilderness – a strange, wild place, populated by the unwanted, the ostracised, and the lost. It is a character in itself – unpredictable and menacing. Like the Wild West, it is a place you can be free, in a way. Sadly though, Harry is never truly free – he tries to wrestle with his identity, and his sexuality, to hide and to conform to the society around him. But he cannot keep his true self hidden for long, and though there is no real resolution for Harry, there is a sense that truth prevails, in the end, and a message that you should hold tight to that truth.

Harry encounters many strong women characters in the book, and it is in many ways a story of how these women affect and shape him. There is a real contrast between the ladylike women of his own family, in England, and the hardiness and resilience of characters like Petra, living out in the wilds of Canada. In their difference, there is a question: what is civilisation? What, in fact, is it to be civilised?

This book explores a web of themes in a structure that leaps from past to present and back. This has the feeling of a helter-skelter, at times thrilling, at times terrifying, but there is order here. This is a very well put together book. Coherent and ambitious, it is of course about homosexuality, but it is also about love and fear, nature and society, the personal and the public, solitude, madness, irony,  hope…I could go on…  

The writing is fluid, deft and surprising. This is not an easy read but it flows. His portrayal of bonds forming between unlikely friends, is subtle - as is his portrayal of irreconcilable difference. Gale has a way of expressing the sadness and loneliness of his characters in a gesture or a glance. He places you inside his characters with such ease – characters you may, or may not, wish to know this well.

This book is a fierce, blistering, beautiful read. You really just have to read it.