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.
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.