I’m normally a big fan of Gale’s work. His ‘Rough Music’ has made it onto my all-time favourite book list, so when I saw this book on the shelves of my local Oxfam bookshop, I grabbed it. It’s a big thick volume, and tells the story of one family, through three generations of trials and tribulations, rather like a man’s take on Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.
The book opens in the years just after World War Two. The first characters we meet are Edward, an exiled German Jew, and Sally, a working class girl who’s made it to the rank of doctor by intelligence, hard work and sheer determination, at a time when such positions were usually held by men, or by women of a higher social class. Both characters have a ’surrogate parent’ in the form of someone who sponsored them through university, who they turn to in times of need, and both of whom are generous to a fault. Sally’s sponsor retires to a nunnery and leaves them a strange little house in the wilds of the Norfolk Broads, which they fall in love with almost as much as they fall in love with each other. They marry, move to the house and produce a family, who become the focus of later chapters of the book: their daughter Miriam, and their grandchildren Alison and Jamie, both of whom fall in love with the same man.
Unfortunately the book has some major flaws. The most obvious of these is that it’s told in third person omnipresent, which seriously detracts from getting to know the characters. The focus shifts from Edward to Sally and back again seemingly at random, and we’re no sooner told that Sally is annoyed about something, than the focus flips to Edward, and doesn’t return to Sally until half way through the next chapter by which time the action has moved on by several months. It’s very distancing and very frustrating, and it means that when the characters are presented with serious problems, you don’t feel you know them well enough to care.
The second flaw is that unlike Harrod-Eagles, Gale has crammed all three generations into a single volume. It’s already over 500 pages long but even so, telling the story of five different main characters in a book that ’short’ means that inevitably a lot of the fine detail gets left out. When Edward is faced with a terrible choice regarding the last surviving member of his family, his actions don’t ring true because we haven’t read enough about his inner battles, or his reasons for making the choice he does. It’s almost as though Gale says “Oops, Edward decided to do this,” without any further explanation, or any fallout, and it’s too disconnected to make any real sense.
I would have liked the book to be split into at least two, perhaps three volumes. I think Edward’s story alone would have been interesting enough to carry the first volume – there aren’t many books written about the Jews who fled to England just before the War, leaving so many family members and friends behind, and his relationship with his ‘father-figure’ Thomas, who is clearly a homosexual and clearly in love with him, could have been developed hugely. Why wasn’t Thomas jealous when Edward decided to marry Sally? Why didn’t he try to persuade Sally not to marry Edward, or at the very least make a few not-very-well-hidden passes at the younger man? Too often Gale doesn’t include nearly enough tension, and the tension he does introduce is often not very well used.
Sally’s character too could have been so much better developed. I’m assuming Gale did his research; it must have been very unusual for a working class girl to become a doctor in those days and the story of her struggle to be accepted for what she was would have been fascinating. As it is, we get a few snippets where male colleagues patronise her, and a few scenes where the rest of her family disapprove, and that’s about it.
In the end I lost interest in the younger generations and the book is still sitting, half-read, on my bedside table. My overall impression is one of huge frustration at a valuable story wasted. Such a shame for an author who’s produced some wonderful books.
This review first appeared at Speak Its Name.