We felt “A Sweet Obscurity” is the work of a novelist capable of writing a major contemporary novel. Patrick Gale has strong powers of plotting and characterisation; a deceptively simple, lucid style of writing which is a pleasure to read; and sets his novels against a lyrically portrayed Cornwall. This is a richly textured novel, dealing with themes of childhood and the past, of city and country, in which the characters have to move from London to Cornwall to confront their problems and then move forward. Yet we felt it had some weaknesses in character and plot, and some limitations in its range. Those of us who knew “Rough Music”, its predecessor, felt that “Rough Music” is closer to the major novel of which we feel Patrick Gale is capable. [Do not read further if you do not want to know the plot.]
What is the overall subject of “A Sweet Obscurity”? We were not too convinced by the answers offered by the critical quotations in the paperback edition. “An examination of the steps to which we will go to find somewhere we can go to call home” picks out only one aspect of one storyline. “A memorable study of a child” puts Dido centre stage in a novel where several characters are equally prominent : and where Eliza, if anyone, is primus inter pares. “The complexity of an extended family is the subject” was unconvincing, as was the tag “a rich comedy” for a novel which has comic scenes but is in no sense a comedy.
The consensus was that the novel was about the characters managing to confront their problems in the “sweet obscurity” of Cornwall (as opposed to the glitter of London), and all thereby managing to move on. Thus Eliza and Pearce move into a happy relationship; Julia accepts her past, moves on from her relationship and accepts motherhood; Giles recognises childhood abuse has stunted his emotional growth and decides to confront it; and Dido finds out and faces up to the problems which have been hidden from her.
Childhood is a central theme. Dido is a child shadowed by events in her mother’s childhood; Pearce’s life has been limited by filial duty; Giles remains child-like because of his abused childhood; Julia hides from her childhood, but then becomes capable of having a child; and Eliza has to return to the land of her childhood to find herself. Gale’s Wessex-style Cornwall is the place where several of the characters have spent their childhood; and for many readers it must also be the romantic symbol of childhood holidays.
Some felt that the novel was limited in its range. The quality of emotional relationships was the overriding value, and other achievements did not really seem to matter. Giles is a second-rank singer; Eliza rejects an academic career; and Pearce gives up on a career as a vet to settle for being a none-too-successful farmer. The main characters are all middle-class, mostly with careers in the arts, and external events in the world hardly impinge on the novel. The emphasis on emotional relationships gave the novel something of an “aga saga” feel, and the one critical quotation we fully endorsed was that “A Sweet Obscurity sits on the boundary between serious fiction and popular romance … occupying the position with a poise which suggests that that’s exactly where he wants it to sit”.
We felt that the plotting was compelling, although not quite rivalling the masterful architecture of “Rough Music”. Some, however, felt that the middle section slowed too much, and that the introduction of cherubism, although an effective shock, seemed largely extraneous to the rest of the plot. The lost madrigal was a particularly cunning device, reinforcing the sense of the weight of time, and with its hidden verses counterpointing the themes of London and the country, of conventional and unconventional sex. The two dinner parties – both pivotal to the story – were intensely imagined.
We felt that it was bold of the novelist – an avowedly gay writer – to attempt a novel that dealt with heterosexual relationships, and relegated gay characters to minor (and somewhat satirized) roles. However, some of us felt that the interplay of the heterosexual relationships was not fully convincing.
The characters in “A Sweet Obscurity” provoked much debate – perhaps itself a tribute to Gale’s power of characterisation. The consensus was that the female characters – Eliza and Julia – were the most convincing. Some felt that Giles was not totally convincing as a heterosexual character (an unintended ambiguity). Pearce was somewhat idealised, particularly when he took responsibility for burning the manuscript, although his unintentional provocation of his father’s suicide was acutely drawn. Dido was engagingly portrayed, but some felt that she was implausibly knowing for a nine year old.
We all agreed that Patrick Gale’s language is a pleasure. It is simple, easy-to-read, and without pretension. Yet it effortlessly conveys feelings, conversations, sights, smells, and idiosyncracies of character. He is always seeking to empathise and to define telling detail. He captures the feel of the countryside as easily as he captures the feel of metropolitan London or of academic Oxford.