7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Another great read from Patrick Gale. A Sweet Obscurity is a tale of disparate adults all with their own needs and hope. Some are living in London and some in Cornwall - we know that somehow their lives will overlap and so we are compelled to read on...... At the heart of the book is Dido, a feisty nine year old who at times acts as parent to her stepmother/biological aunt Eliza. We know that there is some mystery about Dido's mother but we are kept in suspense until the very end. The plotting is ingeniously worked out and the whole work is a very satisfying read with a "feel good" ending.
I can understand why Gale has such a firm fan base even though he will never feature in the more prestigious literary prize lists. Based on my other book reviews I thought this book deserved three stars - but that seemed a bit mean so I have upgraded it to four stars. (I find the star ratings the most difficult part of reviewing!)
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on 12 July 2004
When reading Patrick Gale, one always gets a warm, calm, fuzzy feeling. His novels conjure visions of fireside chats on cold winter evenings, and the affectionate bliss of domestic life. A Sweet Obscurity, although not his best work, certainly invokes such images, while also presenting a rather dark, but hopeful look at modern, untypical relationships and families. Like its predecessor, Rough Music, landscape plays a distinct role; Gale's sophisticated Londoners are transported to Cornwall where they discover both an alternative rhythm of life and a healthier way of living.
Eliza is a musicologist who has lost her way. She's wrecked her marriage with a foolish liaison, and is now living in some squalor in a council flat, while taking care of her young niece, Dido. Since her mother's death in a climbing accident, Dido has lived with Eliza, but Eliza is haunted by fears that her sister's medical problems might have been passed on to the child. Eliza "faces the bossy arrival of daylight with a kind of horror," and she sees with a stark clarity how cruel a sentence she and Dido are living under. She dearly loves her niece, but she is lonely, and short of money. Painfully honest, she acknowledges how much she misses her time as an Oxford student researching Elizabethan madrigals.
Giles is her estranged husband, an operatic counter tenor. He still loves Dido and claims, when it suits him, a paternal role in the child's life. A professional singer, he is haunted by his mother's sexual abuse and funnels his insecurities into his singing. He has a kind of cozy, simplistic domestic arrangement with his girlfriend Julia, but in all honesty, he still loves Eliza. The madrigal songs serve to cast their spell on Giles - "a kind of decorously erotic melancholy, ironing smooth his troublesome thoughts." Eliza and Dido were Giles' pets: He housed them and fed them and was solicitous of their welfare, but this darkens when we glimpse Giles' self-centered, and inappropriately sensual relationship with Dido.
Julia is Giles girlfriend, assistant to his conniving lesbian agent, Selina Bryant. Julia, discovering that she is pregnant, is "torn between the urge to love, and the cruel impulse to enlighten." She has grown used to the image of herself as practical and unflinching, but is forced to re-evaluate her life when she realizes that Giles doesn't love her. Pearce, perhaps the most likeable character, is a rugged, middle-aged Cornish beef farmer. After his father's death, he has reluctantly taken over the family farm, spends lonely evenings calling up pornographic websites, and worries that the days of small family farms are numbered. Pearce's eventual meeting with Dido and Eliza, when they holiday in Cornwall, shape the last half of the story. Pearce has learned "not to strive." He has an inner life, but he is not forever troubled to change or improve his outer one."
All the characters have an instinct to cling to security rather than daring to entertain alternatives. Quieter love amid "country goodness" and a "sweet obscurity" stand for what all five characters are pursuing - a place of safety in an insecure and vainglorious world. Classical music also features prominently, such as a hilarious account of a modern staging of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, and Eliza's chance encounter with an amateur madrigal group in Cornwall. Sweet Obscurity is a little over-long - clocking in at almost five hundred pages - and the narrative tends to meander towards the end. Although not as taught and tightly structured as Rough Music, the novel still does a fine job of evoking the ties that bind people, and transient, often indefinable states that reveal the truth about people's deepest desires and discontents. Mike Leonard July 04.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 23 September 2003
Gale's books are always such a pleasure to read, fill such a scantly provided for niche in the market, that his readers await their arrival with something like the anticipation of a kid drooling over the latest Harry Potter. For here is a writer who works within the best traditions of the English generational saga. Comparisons with Joanna Trollope are often made, but parallels with Iris Murdoch are not far from the mark either: there's a depth of perception, a lack of sentimentality to his writing that makes the big selling 'lager sagas' of lad fiction pale into historical insignificance.
'A Sweet Obscurity' sees Gale pursuing favoured themes such as the outsider as the wellspring of sanity, and the portrayal of the location itself as a major character. Cornwall is again the source of inspiration here, it's gentle manners and secret folds making it the maternal bosom to which all those characters who are capable of redemption will return. But there's far more to it than English Pastoral: deformity, adult/child se***l relations, depression and dislocation are all present too, with the female characters, as always, receiving the most cleanly drawn parts and making the strongest choices.
There's humour, mystery, and a delicate layering of history with the present that makes the characters more than merely of today. There's also some superbly crafted prose, of a quality that puts most of his peers to shame.
'A Sweet Obscurity' is probably too good for the prizes. It's a real novel, not a novelty, and as such should be cherished.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 12 January 2004
Patrick Gale has long been my favourite modern day English author. With Cornwall back as his favourite setting and dealing with generational issues as only he can, Sweet Obscurity sees Patrick Gale return to a form last reached with The Cat Sanctuary. Whilst comparisons with Joanna Trollope can be drawn in terms of Cornwall vs Cotswolds settings, the complexities of emotional relationships in an ever changing world and the emphasis on how women/girls deal with them; Gale's sparser style and wry humour adds a dimension few authors of this genre achieve. I doubt if there is a male writer who can capture the thoughts and feelings of women and children with Gale's accuracy and empathy. Neither is Gale afraid to tackle the more difficult aspects of life, as seen in this book with Cherubism and adult/child sexual "relationships" influencing strongly the characters and plot. It is Gale's intimate but spare style which captures the imagination, developing character and plot simultaneously without losing the reader's attention. Never descending into overstatement or exaggeration, Gale keeps a tight rein on the strengths and weaknesses of his characters and ensures the storyline progresses in parallel. Back to his best, I can now look forward to Gale's next book and look back on a most rewarding read which gently reminds us of the shortcomings which surround us all without ever losing hope or faith in our ultimate capability in dealing with them.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 31 December 2003
Patrick Gale has long been my favourite, present day author. His style is almost languid whatever the pace of the plot; a style which allows the reader to fully immerse in the characters and storyline and makes his work all the more rewarding. A Sweet Obscurity sees Gale back in familiar landscapes and on form. His best book since The Cat Sanctuary, A Sweet Obscurity encapsulates Gale's gentle pace, humour and sharp eye for female and children characterisation. My only word of warning would be one of a risk of his books becoming stereotypical. His ability to simply explain the complexities of his characters and plots may not always serve to disguise the dominant themes of his novels at their best. That said, this book is a welcome reminder of the understated power of Gale's storytelling at its best.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 8 January 2004
I have to stress that I really enjoyed reading this book. The three star rating is because it is not a literary triumph, it’s not a book I would thrust into the hands of anyone else, and it’s not a book I would rave about, or possibly even remember for very long.
I read this having read Rough Music, recommended by a friend, and having seen Gale talk at a literary festival. He was lovely, and I have my signed copy of tree Surgery for Beginners waiting on my bookshelf. But this isn’t the sort of book I usually read.
There are flaws in the book, for me. Cherubism is touched upon, but in such a fleeting, almost half-hearted way, that I was left wondering why it was featured at all. There was nothing I found offensive in the portrayal of this condition; it just didn’t seem to serve a purpose. The ends relating to that strand of the story, were left dangling unconvincingly, for me.
Gale creates characters you like and characters you don’t. Mainly characters I didn’t like, though I really enjoyed reading about them. I liked Pearce, though he was quite ineffectual. I liked something about Eliza, though she was a bit of a disaster. I liked Giles in part, though heaven knows why!!
This is a book in which a lot of disturbed or lonely individuals seek love and approval in varying degrees. At the end, everything is comfortable, but I don’t feel happiness. I get the impression it could all easily unravel, and that is refreshing.
I love the cosiness of this book. I love Cornwall, I’m from Cornwall, and I like to escape into the outside image of Cornwall sometimes. Gale indulges in that. He lives here, so I’m sure he knows it’s not as quaint and friendly as he sometimes paints it (I can’t remember the last time I was encouraged to pour my heart out to a kindly soul on a bus!), but it’s a lovely world to read about. Some of the details of Cornwall and the towns are so vivid, and known to locals - that’s nice to read!
Though I know I don’t seem to praise this book very highly, I must say that it had a rare effect on me, in that I was gripped by it. Not edge-of-the-seat stuff, just couldn’t put it down or wait to get back to it each time I was interrupted! I was absorbed by the book. With even the most fantastic books I have read, this is not the case, so Gale certainly has a gift for drawing his reader into the story.
Thoroughly enjoyable reading.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 22 December 2004
I won't go into details about what the book is about, as i'm sure other people will have done this. I happened to stumble on this book in a 3 for 2 offer! Having started to read it I really felt like i couldn't put it down I was desperate to see how the book finished, and i'm now a solid Patrick Gale fan!
It's not exactly a complete romantics book, but goes into a lot of detail about relationships etc. and I suppose would be considered more of a 'women's book'. Nevertheless it's a great read and I throughly recommend this book to anyone.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 July 2006
If you've read any of his books before this doesn't disappoint.
I found it a little slower going than his others (Rough Music for example) and I didn't really get into it until about a third of the way through. It was worth the read though. As always with Gale's books, you're completely drawn in to the characters (who always seem to be slight oddballs) rather than the story itself.
Although not much grips you with his stories, it's always a shame to get to the end of the book - I just want to keep on reading!
A lovely, easy read.
on 13 June 2009
This is the fourth of Patrick Gale's novels that I have read. I love how he manages to paint complex characters dealing with everyday situations in such a simple style. If you enjoy that about his novels too then you won't be disappointed on that score here.
Usually, I'm hooked on his stories right from the first page. However, I found that I was a third of the way in before I really found I HAD to keep on reading. It takes quite a while until it is made clear how the characters' lives fitted together. Perhaps this is suitable for a novel that seems on one level to be about the distances we go to in order to find "home" but I have to say I did find myself putting the book down at the start rather more than I would have liked. This may have also been because the characters here are, on the whole, simply not as likeable as in his other novels.
Also, Gale holds back something about one of the characters which is revealed towards the end. I don't wish to spoil anyone's pleasure in reading the story for themselves but I did wonder why he revealed this so close to the end only to deal with it so quickly. Although you are left in no doubt as to the strong and determined character of Dido, I think I would have liked a few more chapters at the end exploring this issue.
All in all, I would say that this is definitely worth the read but personally, I enjoyed "Notes on an Exhibition" much more. I found it to be much more tightly plotted.
Patrick Gale is one of the best novelists writing today, yet seems under-recognised by prize-givers. In this, his latest in a long line of excellent books, he gives us a family relationships saga that is sharply funny as well as moving. Tangled affairs and family secrets rarely come as sensitively depicted and their unravelling is rarely as satisfying as in this novel.
Gale is one of those writers who can show the point of view of both men and women with understanding and intelligence. None of his characters are stereotypes or make-weights and his plots are beautifully constructed and edged with a real grounding in whatever milieu he chooses to explore. We are whipped from a recherché opera rehearsal in Convent Garden, to a bleak farmhouse in Cornwall, to a dusty tutorial in Oxford, all with faultless ease.
At the emotional heart of this novel is a small girl, Dido, and her aunt Eliza who has brought her up after the death of her mother. Eliza made a terrible mistake, it seems, in leaving her wealthy, opera-singer husband Giles, for a loveable rogue who turned out not to have a heart of gold. On the death of Eliza's mother, a long-suppressed secret threatens to blow several lives apart. If there's anyone out there who hasn't yet read any Patrick Gale, you are in for a treat.