A Perfectly Good Man opens with 20-year-old Lenny Barnes, paralysed in a rugby accident, taking his own life in the presence of Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved priest of a West Cornwall parish. The tragedy’s reverberations open up the fault-lines between Barnaby and his nearest and dearest – the gulfs of unspoken sadness that separate them all. A Perfectly Good Man is Barnaby Johnson, and the book simply is his story.
I loved everything about A Perfectly Good Man, and felt bereft when I had swiped over the last of the e-pages. Yes, it is about the local priest, Barnaby Johnson, but it is in the interaction of others in his past (revealed in his memories), his parish and his family that we build a picture of this perfectly good man. There is quite a roll call of characters, none of whom I can imagine the story without. Dorothy (his wife), Carrie (his daughter), Jim/Phuc (his adopted son), Nuala (a woman he stumbles upon), Lenny (the boy whose suicide he witnesses), and Modest Carlsson (a parishioner with a dark past) all add light and shade to Barnaby. Gale uses these characters as a multiple person perspective to shape what the reader believes and feels about Barnaby. It is cleverly crafted, so that it is you, the reader, that holds the threads of the story, and not a narrator. You know things that Barnaby doesn’t, and this allows you to make reflections and connections that he simply could not. This makes for a very powerful reading experience – where the reader is expected to do some of the work.
Gale not only gives us the story in multiple perspectives, but in a non-linear fashion too. Time is not chronological in the story, but this mirrors how memories and experiences link in. If anyone has ever spent time in therapy, then this is the reality of the human mind. It makes the story absorbing and more thought-provoking.
A Perfectly Good Man, with a priest as protagonist, examines faith in some detail. It is not a religious study, with relatively few scenes set in the church. We consider the ebb and flow of the spirituality of Barnaby, and its persistence through the presence of this good man in the work within his community. Barnaby is more honest with the reader, somehow, than he is with his own family. Perhaps it is Nuala, the woman he stumbles upon, certainly not one of his flock, that he allows glimpses of his ‘true’ self. Around the central theme of faith, is family, and the gossamer threads of the emotional ties that bind us. Barnaby is treated badly by his father, and in choosing his wife, Dorothy, chooses someone who also seems incapable of love. His own relationship with his adopted son, Jim/Phuc, has its own tragedies, all out of a sense of trying to do the right thing.
The character that troubled me the most, disturbed even, was Modest Carlsson. A man Barnaby ‘rescued’ early in his career, when in Portsmouth. Carlsson then came to seek him out, first in Portsmouth and then in Cornwall. Modest Carlsson, a convicted paedophile, is an odious character, who pursues Barnaby looking for chinks in his soul. Carlsson feels physically repulsive, through Gale’s craft, and reminds me of the grotesque Penguin played by Danny DeVito in a Batman film – Carlsson could be like Penguin gorging on fish like they were depraved souls.
It was great to ‘see’ Morwenna again in A Perfectly Good Man. Morwenna is the daughter of Rachel Kelly, the troubled artist, and protagonist, in Notes From An Exhibition. Morwenna suffered greatly in her family story, and it was heartening that Morwenna finds happier times in A Perfectly Good Man, not quite the ending of the book, but one of the closing scenes. The ending itself was deeply satisfying, ending not in time, but near the beginning, with the 8-year-old Barnaby sitting in the back of his father’s car. It is the birth of his faith, and the essence of the whole story.
In Barnaby, Gale reminds us that no one is perfect, but that shadows exist in all of us. That it is good enough to be A Perfectly Good Man, even if it means holding on to some truths yourself.
A Perfectly Good Man was sent to me as an e-book in exchange for an honest review.
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