100 Essential Books – Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale (2018)

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Way back in 1995 following a couple of recommendations from people whose opinions I valued concerning an author I’d heard of and never read I bought two Patrick Gale novels, “Ease” from 1986 which I thought was okay and his debut “The Aerodynamics Of Pork” (also 1986) which I really didn’t like and at that point I thought I’d probably not go out of my way to read more from this author, but the following year, after good publicity I sought out “Facts Of Life” (1995) and I was extremely glad that I did as it ended up in my Top 5 reads for that year.

Since then I have read a fair amount of Patrick Gale. This is his 17th novel (including one in conjunction with Tom Wakefield) of which I have now read nine plus one short story collection. He was back in my end of year Top 10’s with 2000’s “Rough Music” and 2012’s “A Perfectly Good Man” – a beautifully written tale of a Cornish vicar approaching retirement who encounters a tragedy involving one of his parishioners. I also really enjoyed (although it just missed out on my Top 10 ) his 2015 novel “A Place Called Winter” which attracted a wide readership and won over a lot of people (especially in reading groups where it was a popular choice) who had not discovered him before and was nominated for awards. This was a rare foray for him into the historical novel, set largely in Canada around the time of World War I. Despite being set in the distant past this was an intensely personal work as the author took his inspiration from a memoir written by his grandmother and used his imagination to fill in the gaps. Following this he turned out a well-received screenplay for “Man In The Orange Shirt” first shown as part of the Queer Britannia strand on BBCTV celebrating 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. Once again the personal and fiction overlapped as this was based upon an incident in his parents’ marriage.

With his reputation buoyant came this much anticipated title and after much reflection I  can say that I think “Take Nothing With You” is his best novel to date and all that potential has been building to this work which both enhances and broadens the belief that he is one of the best British living novelists. It feels like his handling of the last two more personal works have been internalised and caused him to create his most touching and affecting novel. And it goes without saying it is beautifully written.

Patrick Gale, who was a talented cello player in his youth has here created Eustace, a talented cello player in his youth who has taken up the instrument again in later life. Now passing the 50 mark he is encountering a threat to his health and whilst undergoing treatment the cello music he listens to in order to pass the time causes a reflection on his past.

The young Eustace is one of Gale’s most memorable creations, a naïve and occasionally prissy youth self-absorbed by his instrument and cello lessons but at the same time having to learn about life, coming to grips with both the doors his musical talent might open for him as well as coming to terms with his sexuality. I would say that this is Gale’s most gay-themed novel and the time feel right for him to do this. John Boyne has also seen his reputation soar recently penning a classic gay-themed novel which attracted a much wider readership than it would have done a decade before and this is also of top quality.

There is also a lot of cello playing, which I thought would put me off, as often novels about music and musicians do not work as well as they think they do but here I was fascinated. I fell in love with the boy growing up in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare in the 1970s with ambitions to be a musical great if only his mother and father and society will let him realise his dreams. It is haunting, nostalgic and sensitive and has all the qualities to make it an essential read. I’m happy to give this book my first five star rating this year.

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Take Nothing With You was published in hardback by Tinder Press in 2018. The paperback is due out on 4th April 2019.

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