: “When a thing has always been forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.”
A Place Called Winter is the sixteenth novel by British author, Patrick Gale. In early 20th century England, shy and stuttering Harry Cane, nurturing older brother to the infinitely more confident Jack, is rather surprised to find himself married to Winnie, and before long, a father to Phyllis. Even more surprising, the obsessive infatuation for another that forces him to abandon his family, England and the bulk of his wealth for the hardship, privation and loneliness of the Canadian prairielands. Harry is befriended on the ship by a strangely charismatic man, a Dane named Troels Munck, who commandeers his life and steers him to a land plot near the remote Saskatchewan town of Winter.
The narrative alternates between two time periods: Harry’s life after he leaves a mental asylum and joins the therapeutic community run by the unconventional Dr Gideon Ormshaw at Bethel; and the events of his life from when his father died, events that led up to his admission to the asylum. Based on story of his own great-grandfather’s life, Gale’s story portrays the reality of pioneering in the Canadian wilderness. It also touches on accepted therapies for mental illness at the time and the dangers of being a homosexual in this era. Gale has a marvellous talent for making the reader feel true empathy for his main character: it is virtually impossible not to feel Harry’s heartache, his anxiety, his anger and his fear, but also his love.
Gale’s descriptive prose is a pleasure to read: “She looked after the geese and ducks and was an excellent shot, regularly bagging wild duck…. She also shot rabbit and the occasional hare. These she would pluck or skin herself in an efficient fury all the more self-righteous for being unapplauded and unregarded” and “As Troels came to stand beside him, Harry smelt the musk of his sweat and something else, something threatening, if threat had a smell” and “There were stars, a seamless, spangled fishnet of them from horizon to horizon, coldly lighting the land and lending the farm buildings, outlined sharply against them, an eerie loveliness” are just a few examples.
Fans of Gale’s work will not be disappointed, and newcomers to his work will want to seek out more of it. This beautifully written novel is incredibly moving and completely captivating.
With thanks to Hachette and The Reading Room for this copy to read and review.