The perfectly good man of this novel is Barnaby Johnson, a vicar who witnesses a young paraplegic commit suicide and is unable to do anything to stop it. This gives the novel a strong, dramatic opening, but it is the events and coincidences leading up to this that are the heart of the story, painting a picture of one man and his family.
As a vicar, Barnaby must be seen to be good and certainly he tries very hard. But sometimes life gets in the way and we realise that what makes him a better man is that he has the same feelings and weaknesses as the rest of us.
The characters around Barnaby are also carefully drawn. We get to know his wife Dorothy, who is determinedly practical in order to deal with several miscarriages. Carrie, their daughter has a passion for carpentry, and Jim, their adopted Vietnamese son, has to learn to deal with his past. Meanwhile, Modest Carlsson, who is both fascinating and repulsive, manages to be a catalyst for disaster on more than one occasion.
The organisation of chapters and plot is unusual, jumping not only from character to character, but also from decade to decade, taking us for instance from ‘Barnaby at 52’ to ‘Dorothy at 34’. This can take a bit of getting used but the author feeds out just enough information to keep us interested, while making the connections between events and people.
I have enjoyed a number of novels by Patrick Gale, particularly The Whole Day Through and Notes from an Exhibition. He is an author of immense sympathy and humanity, describing people’s frailties without being judgemental. A Perfectly Good Man is another fine example of his work.
Reveiewed by JAM
Catalogue Link: A Perfectly Good Man