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4.2 out of 5 stars
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4.2 out of 5 stars
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'A Sweet Obscurity', one of Patrick Gale's longer novels, is a warm-hearted, multi-stranded story which is set in London and Cornwall and which looks at the lives of assortment of people, several of whom are struggling to cope with sensitive issues they are trying to keep hidden from those around them. Eliza, a rather disorganized musicologist suffering from bouts of depression, is separated from her husband, Giles, a professional counter-tenor singer. She has spent the last nine years bringing up her deceased sister's daughter, the surprisingly mature Dido, and since the separation lives in a council flat in Islington. Eliza was working for a doctorate but, for various reasons, she has abandoned her research work on the Elizabethan madrigal and the compositions of the Cornish poet-composer Roger Trevescan, and is now feeling despondent and directionless. She is also worrying about something which affected her sister when she was alive, and something which could have a huge impact on Dido's future life.

Giles now lives with his girlfriend, the cool and very business-like Julia, who runs his home and professional life with aplomb, but he still has a close relationship with the nine-year-old Dido (having married Eliza when Dido was a baby) and they continue to spend time together. However, when Dido discovers something about Giles that upsets and confuses her, their relationship takes a turn for the worse and Guy, filled with guilt and remorse, is unsure how to deal with the situation. Julia, meanwhile, makes a life-altering discovery of her own; however, aware that Giles is attracted to her but not in love with her, she is not sure how he will react to her news, and this forces her think more closely about the future of their relationship. And when Eliza's mother falls ill and she and Dido travel to Cornwall - where Eliza meets and becomes attracted to the kind and dependable Pearce, a farmer who just happens to have a connection with Roger Trevescan - a whole series of events are set in motion which leave none of them unaffected. (No spoilers - we learn most of this early on in the story and at nearly five hundred pages there is a lot more in this novel for prospective readers to discover).

Patrick Gale writes beautifully about situation and setting and whilst it is true that some aspects of the plot rely on coincidences, and other aspects are not entirely convincing, this is a big, warm-hearted story filled with characters one cares about and becomes interested in what ultimately happens to them. As always, the author writes with perception and with an empathic understanding of human nature and of the situations people find themselves in; he also seems to write as well from a female perspective as he does from the male. I was drawn into this novel from its very first pages and although there was a part of this story that unsettled me (I can't explain further without revealing spoilers) and which made me wonder if that aspect of the plot would spoil my appreciation of the novel as a whole, I need not have worried because the rest of the story was so satisfyingly enjoyable that I started and finished it in two sittings. Recommended.

4 Stars.
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on 7 May 2017
Another beautifull book by Patrick Gale. Sad to finish the story,waiting for a new one very soon I always hope
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on 27 March 2017
What a great book. Mr gale draws you in to Cornwall and people attached to the place and each other. Perfect holiday read.
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on 26 April 2017
Great transaction. Thanks.
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on 6 September 2016
Very good holiday read comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
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VINE VOICEon 9 January 2008
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!)
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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