Genre: LGBT, Bildungsroman, romance
Narrative Style: Third Person, Moves from present day to childhood
Synopsis: Fifty something Eustace is facing a number of potential changes to his life. He is beginning a new romance and has just discovered he has to have treatment for cancer. Time in hospital gives him time to think about the past and his childhood in particular.
Time on shelf: I bought this at the same time as The Testaments with birthday vouchers in November. I’ve read four other of Gale’s novels and loved them all particularly A Place Called Winter. This was never going to sit on the shelf for long.
This was an absolute joy to read. Gale’s style flows beautifully and the characters, right down to the smallest, are well rounded and convincing. The plot trots along at a nice pace and I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I could have carried on.
The novel starts with Eustace in his fifties and just beginning a new romance albeit online rather than in real life. The exchanges between Eustace and Theo, a younger man in the army are tender and sweet. Eustace is cautious having recently had been involved in a difficult relationship but he starts to let his defences down. Then he discovers that he has cancer and he has to go into hospital to be treated with a large dose of radiotherapy. In fact, he has to stay in a lead lined room while it destroys his tumour. This gives Eustace the chance to think back over his childhood and past relationships.
Eustace is a bit of an odd child who doesn’t really fit in at home – where his parents run an old people’s home – or at school where he stands apart from the noise and chaos of the other boys. As he grows, he starts to understand some of the things that make him different – his developing knowledge of his sexuality and also his love of music.
The descriptions of Eustace learning to play the cello are a particular joy. Gale clearly has a real love for music and for playing an instrument. His cello teacher, Carla Gold, is unconventional and opens Eustace’s eyes to a whole new way of living. Especially when he starts to visit her at her flat in Bristol which she shares with a gay couple. He comments that he isn’t just getting cello lessons but also lessons in being gay as well.
Carla not only changes Eustace’s life but also that of his mother. Eustace watches her come out of her shell when she starts to go out for lunch and spend more time with Carla. Eustace never really understands the exact nature of this relationship and it is never made explicit but it is clear that his mother has fallen in love with Carla.
I felt a bit sorry for Eustace’s mother. His father is old-fashioned and they are ill-matched. When Carla appears, she falls head over heels for her. However, she is not allowed any real joy as when she and Carla run away together, their car crashes and his mother ends up in a coma. When she comes round, she has had a religious experience and she slowly transforms into the villain of the piece.
All this is seen through Eustace’s eyes and as he doesn’t completely understand what has happened, the reader has to piece it together. At the same time, we also see his first experiences with other boys, something else he doesn’t always fully understand. Gale moves easily between comedy and sadness. His descriptions of Eustace’s experiences are heartfelt and authentic.
Eustace’s childhood builds to a dramatic conclusion and then we move back to the present day and his return home, ready for his new romance and the first real life meeting with Theo. I could have happily read more about this relationship but it was a good place to stop, on such a hopeful note. Any further and we’d be into the reality of whether the cancer treatment has worked and whether or not his relationship will actually work. Instead, we are left with the pair of them desperate to go to bed but unable because Eustace is still radioactive. A lovely ending to a lovely book.