September 2010

Back from our summer recess, some members had been so inundated with visitors that they had not managed to finish Patrick Gale’s A Sweet Obscurity, and it is a tribute to the author that they all begged to be allowed to keep their copy another few days in order to read the denouement for themselves.

The four main adult characters in this, his twelfth book, are given a chapter each to introduce themselves, albeit in the third person: Eliza, the depressive intellectual who has adopted her dead sister Hannah’s daughter; Giles, the gorgeous counter-tenor from whom she is separated; Julia, his worldly, social-climbing new partner; Pearce, the gentle Cornishman who farms inherited acres in Penwith. But the novel really revolves around Dido, the nine-year old girl who somehow manages to keep Eliza together, inspires paternal feelings and more besides in Giles, and satisfies Julia’s inchoate parenting instincts. Pearce, meanwhile, is demonstrating what a splendid father he would make while babysitting his tomboy niece Lucy. It is clearly only a matter of time before he, too, will become involved with Dido and possibly provide the real home she so obviously craves. The first chapters also lay down clues concerning Dido’s birth mother and the reactions of others to her, if we care to look for them.

The death of Eliza’s mother, Dido’s grandmother, in Camborne, is the catalyst for change in these lives. Within days, they are all in Cornwall, on separate but colliding missions. Eliza is not only finding a new and exciting focus for her doctoral thesis which has taken a backseat during Dido’s childhood, she is also falling in love with Pearce, and he with her, while Julia is painfully examining her relationship with Giles and finding it wanting.

The setting is mostly a very recognizable Cornwall, with realistic scenes of a visit to St. Michael’s Mount, an amateur madrigal group meeting in St. Just, farming tasks such as planting cauliflower and broccoli seedlings, a concert at the thinly disguised St. Endellion Festival. It is also peppered with engaging peripheral characters who produce many of the novel’s lighter moments, particularly Julia’s horrendous dinner party which introduces the waspish Villiers Yates who pops up at regular intervals. An ongoing joke is the production of Britten’s Dream, its sexual overtones and largely non-existent costumes, in which Giles is preparing to star as Oberon.

At its heart, A Sweet Obscurity is a serious novel and all the members of the book group cared about the outcome for each of its main characters, particularly Dido, whose prospects for a normal adult life, despite her fortitude, are questionable. We like Patrick Gale, have already read Notes from an Exhibition, and would happily read another from his oeuvres.

Next month we are discussing The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver on October 14.

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