A coming-of-age saga that detours into the darker aspects of middle-class life
When the main character in Patrick Gale's new novel is being briefed about the once-off post-operative treatment he'll undergo for thyroid cancer, he is told to bring nothing with him that he doesn't mind leaving behind. The treatment will make him radioactive for a day, contaminating anything and anyone he touches, and the nurse's instruction - the basis of the book's title - sets the mood for Gale's bittersweet story.
In fact, Eustace takes his life with him to the lead-lined room where he is to spend a day in isolation. And as soon as he begins to listen to a series of cello recordings - a Proustian gift from a friend - he is transported back to his 1970s childhood in the English seaside town of Weston-Super-Mare, into memories of music and messy love.
Though less well known than some of his contemporaries, Gale is a prolific writer and has been working steadily since his two first novels were published simultaneously in 1986. His first venture into historical fiction, A Place Called Winter, was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award in 2015, and in 2017, his TV drama Man in an Orange Shirt was screened as part of the BBC's Queer Britannia series. By the end of this year, his back catalogue, including some previously out-of-print titles, will be available from Tinder Press.
It's good news, because Gale is an enticing and quietly subversive storyteller. On one level, Take Nothing With You is an accessible and fairly straightforward coming-of-age saga, exploring the development of Eustace's relationship with music and his own sexuality, but its depictions of strangeness and toxicity of under-the-surface conventions of middle-class life take it into darker and more surprising territory.
An only child, an outsider and introvert, Eustace lives in the nursing home run by his parents. When, as a young teenager, he begins cello lessons with Carla, he discovers an intense passion for the instrument and new possibilities beckon. He and his mother are besotted with his sophisticated, extroverted teacher, and, through her, meet a gay couple that, in Eustace's eyes, become a kind of alternative family. Gale uses dramatic irony to reveal that Carla and Eustace's mother are having a sexual relationship. Eustace remains (slightly unbelievably) oblivious to this.
Later, he goes to a cello camp in Scotland, and meets a second teacher who will ultimately decide whether or not he will become a professional cellist. Gale is excellent at depicting how some gifted teachers can be inspirational and destabilising at once, fostering ambition and insecurity, engaging in mind games and power play.
It's a novel of doubles, a double narrative set in the present and the past, though the past has more emotional weight. There are two cello teachers, two love interests for the teenage Eustace, two trips to music camp, two nursing homes, two grandparents - one maternal, one paternal - two gay relationships.
Understated and eerie, this wonky mirroring captures the inevitability and impossibility of recurrence - the same things happen again but always differently - and, in a story mapping the transition from childhood to adulthood, its symbolic resonance is deeply satisfying.
Less satisfying are some of the plot twists, particularly an overly dramatic one involving Eustace's thoroughly awful mother. Gale doesn't always account for the motivations of his characters; ultimately, Eustace's mother remains a mystery. He eschews neatness in more understandable ways, too - characters drift apart or change, they reject and betray one another. Again and again, Eustace's ambitions are thwarted, fitting with one of the novel's central themes: understanding and transcending regret.
In elegant, restrained prose, Gale writes with an eye on impermanence, showing how loss can be tinged with hope, and new beginnings with the threat of mortality. He is excellent at capturing time and place and while he doesn't avoid social commentary - Eustace is alive to the nuances of the British class system, and his mother's internalised homophobia has drastic consequences - he embeds it within the narrative so that it doesn't feel superimposed.
Similarly, he writes about the cello and classical music with an insider's knowledge but limits the passages of pure description; instead, he taps into a range of experiences and emotions that are both specific and beautifully universal.
Take Nothing With You
Tinder Press, hardback, 344 pages, €18