A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale — a question of virtue

Cover of A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale.

Sometimes my brain craves a quiet, subtle novel like Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man, an intricately constructed tale about human frailty, family and faith.

The man in question is Father Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved vicar of a Cornish parish located somewhere between St Ives and the author’s home near Land’s End. Is Father Johnson, a man without imperfections or are we meant to understand from the title that “perfectly good” means “adequate” but nothing more?

The answer is revealed in fragments as we follow the course of Barnaby’s life.

We learn of a childhood marred by an uneasy relationship with a remote father; rescued only by the support of his uncle’s long-term partner who acts as stand-in parent and pays for Barnaby’s education.

One Of The Good Guys?

As an adult, Barnaby seems to possess a bottomless reservoir of forgiveness and tolerance. He never skips evening prayers even though only one person ever turns up for the service. He’s always available to help parishioners in need despite behaviours and attitudes he finds annoying. And he gives up his rectory so it can be used as a women’s refuge.

Running counter to this portrait of a virtuous man are revelations that Father Johnson has an affair with one of his parishioners, experiences doubts about his commitment to the church and considers leaving his wife.

The biggest question mark about the nature of this priest is actually to be found in the first chapter, a startling episode in which Father Johnson visits Lenny, a 20-year-old man who was paralysed in a rugby accident.

Lenny doesn’t want the priest to provide solace however. He wants a witness while he kills himself, downing a cocktail of lethal drugs he’d bought online.  Amid lurid tabloid headings labelling him “the Vicar of Death”, Barnaby faces questions about the extent of his complicity in the boy’s death.

I am a priest … I have few skills … But I do know that I can pray for a dying man’s eternal soul … I knew the circumstances were ambiguous. I thought it more honest to be arrested and trust in justice than just to slip away.

Suspended Judgement

This is a novel where the structure makes it difficult to come to any judgement about the central character until the very end. A Perfectly Good Man uses a non linear structure based on key moments in the lives of the key figures. Each chapter is headed with a character’s name and an age. So after “Lenny at 20”, we jump to “Dorothy at 24” , unaware at that point that she is Father Johnson’s future wife. Then it’s back to the priest in “Barnaby at 60” before a leaping to another new character “Modest Carlsson at 39”.

Since these chapters are not in any chronological order, it takes time to figure out when the events took place. Only when we’re well into the novel does it become clear that these moments are not quite as random as they initially appear.

Our perspective on this man is constantly being challenged. We see him through the eyes of his wife, his daughter; his estranged, drug addict son and the evil parishioner Modest Carlsson yet for much of the time he still feels an elusive character.

The ambiguity works beautifully. As does the element of suspense embedded in Modest Carlsson’s obsessive determination to find something, anything, that can be used to destroy the priest.

A Perfectly Good Man is a captivating novel. Does it show Barnaby as a completely virtuous man or a man with some blemishes on his character? Read it and decide for yourself.

A Perfectly Good Man was the second book I read for #20booksofsummer2021. I’m counting it as book 10 in my #22in22 personal project where I am trying to read 22 books from my TBR that I acquired before 2022.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

15 thoughts on “A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale — a question of virtue

  • July 26, 2022 at 7:54 am
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    Sounds intriguing, I haven’t read any of his books. Thanks for the heads-up.

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  • July 25, 2022 at 3:21 pm
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    Hmm, not familiar with Gale, so this might prove a useful entrée … possibly.

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    • July 25, 2022 at 9:13 pm
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      You might enjoy Notes From An Exhibition more – it also uses a discontinuous narrative

      Reply
  • July 25, 2022 at 6:47 am
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    Such a good book… but then, everything I’ve read by Gale has been excellent!

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    • July 25, 2022 at 9:16 pm
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      I’ve read only three, including this one. My first taste was A Place Called Winter which I didn’t rate at the time but might give it another go. The other one was Notes From An Exhibition which I loved

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  • July 24, 2022 at 7:54 pm
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    I’m always up for reading Patrick Gale, and in the strength of your review, this one might be next.

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      • July 25, 2022 at 9:17 pm
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        So glad to be able to add to your TBR for a change – usually all the recommendations are coming from you to me 🙂

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    • July 25, 2022 at 9:17 pm
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      Do you have a favourite among his books Margaret?

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      • July 26, 2022 at 1:37 pm
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        I haven’t actually. It’s a while since I’ve read one, but I always have to come and have a fix every now and then. You?

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        • July 26, 2022 at 4:52 pm
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          I’ve read only three so not much to go on but of those three, my favourite so far is Notes From An Exhibition

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