Patrick Gale is perhaps slightly overlooked as a literary novelist but he is certainly that. His novels and short stories may give the appearance of undemanding narratives but I suspect there's a lot of craft in making them so and there is certainly a lot of art in making them something beyond just very good stories. His novel A Perfectly Good Man is a perfect fusion of craft and art. And it is subtle from the start; we know that the phrase 'perfectly good' is not all that it seems even if the 'but' that might follow it is unsaid.
A Perfectly Good Man is written from the view point of a over half a dozen characters, each chapter being the character at a particular age, allowing the narrative to build from person to person. What is especially interesting is that the character studies are not chronological so understanding of history and motivation is released only gradually. It would be interesting to read just the character studies of one character at a time or to read the studies in chronological order. If this were an e-book we might do this easily but I suspect Patrick Gale is not a writer who wants to play with form in this way and that he wants to tell the story as he wants it told. Fair enough.
The novel is prefaced with a quote from Thomas à Kempis about our imperfections from his De Imitatione Christi. The same book features in the novel, but more importantly it is the idea that any one person has dark and light in their personality, and that both nature and nurture has a part to play in making people, that underpins A Perfectly Good Man. And it is done so carefully, utterly believable (despite or because of the variety of the characters), showing not telling, letting the characters and plot develop organically, and most importantly giving the reader the responsibility for making the novel work. It is, if I may borrow a quote, a novel for grown-ups.
And because it reflects our own lives - how we constantly fall beneath our own exacting standards (or in my case, not even exacting) - it is, oddly enough, a very useful book. Are novels supposed to be useful? I'm not sure, but they should certainly engage or challenge readers and this does both. We are engaged by the beautiful vulnerabilities of characters and we are challenged by the choices they face, choices we can recognise as being universal. But we don't, I think, completely identify with any one character - how could we, we are all individuals - and I don't think Patrick Gale wants us to, but we do, however, empathise and that is the kind of response we want from fiction for grown-ups.
I've deliberately not mentioned any details of the characters or plot. It is not the sort of novel you'd read simply because you had a liking for Cornwall or were interested in assisted suicide, or any of the other subjects touched on. The joy of this novel is how assuredly the characters are created and worked with, the subtlety of the narrative, and the unobtrusive prose. It feels like it is written because it wants to be read and that it trusts its readers to be open-minded and thoughtful, and as a result it is hugely enjoyable.