According to the judges of the 2015 Costa Book Awards, Patrick Gale’s novel A Place Called Winter is “A sensitive, beautifully structured story of loss, fear, exile and hope.”
It certainly dealt with exile but I read it more of a story about identity than fear and loss. ‘Sensitive’ I can agree with too. This is after all a story of homosexual love set in a period of history when such practices were illegal and even if tacitly acknowledged to be taking place, assuredly not something spoken of openly. To give him credit, I thought Gale showed a depth of understanding and compassion in his rendition of the relationship between his protagonist, Harry Cane, a shy well off gentleman of leisure, and the two men he comes to love.
But ‘beautifully structured’ is stretching it too far. This is a novel that begins in a Canadian psychiatric hospital where Harry receives hypnosis and brutal cold water/hot steam therapy. Released into the care of a doctor with an academic interest in his case, he moves to a more relaxed community farm to continue his recuperation. The narrative then loops back through his life, starting with Harry as a young man in Edwardian England and tracing the path that led him to exile in the remote plains of Saskatchewan, Canada. Scenes from his time at the community farm are interposed with those at his farm near a place called Winter. I imagine Gale wanted to use this nested narrative technique as a way to build suspense, to cause us to wonder what misfortune had brought Harry so low that he needed treatment. For me this technique, which I seem to see more and more in contemporary fiction, didn’t materially add to the experience of reading the book and at times was distracting.
This is Patrick Gale’s first historical novel and a departure from the Cornish settings of his previous work, including the big commercial success Notes from An Exhibition. It was sparked by Gale’s fascination with the history of his own family, and particularly that of his great-grandfather, who had emigrated to Canada in the early 1900s. This was a man who abandoned his wife and child and a comfortable home in England for a life of hard physical work in a harsh, remote part of Canada. Gale’s own family provided no explanation but in fictionalising his great grandfather as Harry Cane, Gale imagined the catalyst was the need to avoid discovery of a homosexual relationship that would, if made public, brought ruination.
Harry leaves England to become a homesteader, one of thousands of Europeans drawn to the vast open spaces of Canada by the offer of free land and with it, the promise of a new life. He has no experience of farming, no experience of physical labour, no experience of work of any kind in fact. Fortunately for him, or so he thinks initially, another passenger on the voyage out is there to take him in hand and show him the ropes. It’s a mark of Harry’s naievity that he fails to recognise Trolls Munck is not a good samaritan but a hard-hearted, savage figure, quick to exploit the weaknesses of others. Munck’s acts of brutality eventually destroy Harry’s happiness and his sanity.
Gale blends fiction and fact to create A Place Called Winter. There is indeed such a place, a stop on a railway line named in alphabetical order by the contractors of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Gale travelled along that same line, tracing Harry’s journey from Toronto. Using map co-ordinates he tracked down the exact location of his great grandfather’s farm and was moved when he discovered the land was still being ploughed. He also found tiny scraps of info about Harry Crane in a small local library.
Much of the background info makes its way into the novel but not in sufficient detail for me. We get a sense of the isolation, the natural world (one of the things Harry notices is the birdsong) but the full harshness of the winter is dealt with rather fleetingly. And yet the conditions must have been extraordinarily tough especially when you realise that in his first year Harry lived in a tent with only primitive heating/cooking equipment despite sub zero temperatures.
And herein lies my real issue with the novel. The narrative always felt as if it was skimming the surface, moving along from one episode to another so we never had enough time and space to under the skin of either the place or the people. Harry was someone I wanted to get to know, needed to know in fact the better to understand his pain. But it never materialised. Instead of getting inside his head we were simply told about his feelings and then the next incident happened and the next. Most unsatisfactory. I don’t know whether this is Gale’s normal style or whether he was constrained by knowledge that he was dealing with real people even though long dead. Such a pity if he was because there was so much more I felt he could have done and said.