Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight in 1962, where his father was prison governor at Camp Hill prison.
Later the family moved to London. He boarded at The Pilgrim's School, where he was a chorister, then went to Winchester College before reading English at Oxford University. He did a series of odd jobs to support his writing before becoming a full-time novelist, moving to Cornwall in 1987. He is the author of several novels, and also writes short stories and novellas. He has written one book of non-fiction, on the American novelist Armistead Maupin, and also writes book reviews for The Daily Telegraph.
His first two novels, Ease and The Aerodynamics of Pork, were published on the same day in 1986. The Facts of Life (1995) tells the story of Edward Pepper, an exile saved from Nazi Germany in the Kindertransport, and Tree Surgery for Beginners (1998) is about Laurence Frost, an inarticulate tree surgeon. A Sweet Obscurity (2003) is told from the alternating viewpoints of four separate characters. Friendly Fire (2003) draws on the author's own experience of a late 1970s adolescence, and Notes from an Exhibition (2007) is set in Cornwall, exploring the effects of mental illness on artist Rachel Kelly and her family.
Patrick Gale's book of short stories, Dangerous Pleasures (1996) contains his first published short story, 'Borneo', shortlisted for the Whitbread Short Story Award in 1985, and 'Wig', which has since been produced on stage as a touring live literature performance.
In 2002, Rough Music (2000) was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and in 2008, Notes from an Exhibition was shortlisted for the British Book Awards: Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year, and won the Booksellers Association Independent Booksellers' Book Prize.
Since then he has written four further novels: The Whole Day Through (2009), a love story about a couple who are reunited after a 20-year interval; Gentleman's Relish (2009); A Perfectly Good Man (2012); and A Place Called Winter (2015).
Called by Richard Canning one of the ‘great, unsung English novelists’ (The Independent, 18 November 2000), Gale has for over 20 years produced a series of fictions characterised by the collision of the bizarre with middle-class family life, from the edgy early works to the more recent romances.
Yet in the literary establishment he can seem a marginal figure; fiction prizes have eluded him, and, in discussion of contemporary gay writers (in books such as Richard Bradford’s The Novel Now (2007)), he is sidelined in favour of Alan Hollinghurst, Philip Hensher and Adam Mars-Jones. Nothing damages a writer’s serious reputation as much as the fact that they are widely read, and much loved.
Accusations that Gale is middlebrow can be easily deflected by turning to his earliest work: The Aerodynamics of Pork (1986) and Kansas in August (1987) have an acerbically witty style, and a comic edge laced with the threat of violence. In the opening of the latter, we at first appear to be witnessing a hotel guest being brought room service; what we are in fact seeing is a resident doctor being brought a urine sample on a tray by a psychiatric patient. Henry, the doctor, is a woman. It is a great comic opening to Gale’s debut (Ease, a weaker novel, was published on the same day). Gale can close a novel equally strongly: at the end of Kansas in August, a young Indian girl burns a shrine to her gay teacher, while singing ‘Getting to Know You’ and knowing she is still in love with him. Both novels show Gale’s stylistic verve, and ability to create comic juxtapositions. He writes in Kansas in August of a ‘drear bungaloid present’ and ‘armadas of garbage’, and gives the following rendering of a woman’s thoughts as she meets a stranger: ‘She should stab his hand with the cigarette lighter. There was an old can of anti-mugger spray somewhere. She had gin. Were there any limes?’ This type of juxtaposition is at the heart of the structure of The Aerodynamics of Pork, which focuses on both a lesbian policewoman in working-class East London, and an upper-class family in Cornwall. In the middle of a romantic scene outdoors, we are told of a lavatory window being opened as the toilet flushes, to clear a smell. These two novels are Gale’s most inventive and original.
Little Bits of Baby (1989) shows Gale marking out his territory: romantic and sexual adventures in the bohemian and middle classes, in a manner reminiscent of Iris Murdoch, whom Gale admires. There is already, here, a subtle poignancy: it is a novel haunted by death, whom, a child prodigy remarks, is the person in the song who has ‘got the whole world in his hands’. There is also a deliberately upbeat symbolic ending, as a TV audience ‘are treated to a lingering close-up of a mixed-race, single-sex kiss.’ But Gale is not a political writer, a fact that distances him from some of his peers; in fact, he likes to place queer characters as players in larger human dramas. Gale is a humanist, and allows all his lead players equal centres of self, moving with The Facts of Life (1995) to an embracing of the family saga. Similarly, The Cat Sanctuary (1990) spotlights two sisters; again, the impression is one of the potential of sudden violence in middle-class life. The novel opens ‘Deborah was waving Julian off to work when he was murdered’. Tree Surgery for Beginners (1998) has divided critics and readers, but it is without doubt an innovative work, combining meetings with tigers and transsexuals in a plot ‘which takes up the elements of the eighteenth-century comic novel’ and is ‘infused with a smiling, Mozartean sensibility’ (Philip Gambone, New York Times, 24 January 1999).
In his more recent fictions, Gale has acquired both a new sweetness and poignancy, and a confident ability to orchestrate parallel narratives in the past and the present. Rough Music (2000) is set, like much of Gale’s work, in Cornwall, where the author now lives; a return to a childhood holiday home is the catalyst for an explosive family triangle, and the narration of painful events of the past. There is often a strong sense of the value of the past over the present: Gale, through his character Will, seems to regret how, in the modern world, privacy is violated; carved wooden angels on a new, glass church roof may be admirably muscular, and well-executed, but they are also expressionless and not beautiful. Will’s father laments children’s lack of appreciation of culture; graffiti is ‘the ugly look-at-me signatures of the young’; and, in a theme park, adults join children on water slides, ‘like creatures reborn only to climb the stairways to ride down again. It was futile and nightmarish …’ This is a very different voice from the Gale of the early novels, close perhaps to Ruth Rendell and P.D. James, yet fitting given the time gap. Yet the bleak hints are strongly offset by nostalgia and a happy conclusion to the gay romance.
Notes from an Exhibition (2007) brought Gale to a still larger audience, through its selection for Richard and Judy’s Book Club. Set again in Cornwall, the novel opens with the death of artist Rachel Kelly, continuing by narrating her troubled past, mental instability (another key theme in Gale’s fiction), and how one of her sons came to die. A contender for being Gale’s best novel, its strengths lie in its construction (each section of the book is named after an invented painting by the fictional Kelly), its management of subtle suspense (who really was the artist?), and the appearance of Barbara Hepworth in a comic cameo. Nicknamed GBH – ‘God, it’s Barbara Hepworth’ – she appears as a lovable if formidable eccentric, whom Gale states is fictional yet based upon first-hand accounts. ‘Morwenna’s just been admiring one of your lovely vulvas’ says Kelly to Hepworth, pricelessly, commenting on a sculpture they have viewed. Gale’s ability to render invented works of art, in Kelly’s paintings, is highly commendable.
The combined effect of Gale’s work is of a strong move from quirky energy to a more contemplative stance, with a growing emergence of a background of art, music and spirituality. The Quakerism of the characters in Notes from an Exhibition symbolizes the quietness and peace which has come to characterise Gale, alongside the ever-present possibilities of sex, love, violence and death. Canning, in his review of Rough Music (The Independent, 18 November 2000), likened Gale to contemporary writers such as Barbara Trapido, Helen Dunmore and Colm Toibin, and canonical novelists like Murdoch, Hardy and Austen. We might also mention Evelyn Waugh, E.M. Forster and Beryl Bainbridge. He successfully unites the ability to imagine characters from inside, and clear, often lyrical writing, with a commitment to narrative drive and romance, giving him a popularity many can only hope for.
Dr Nick Turner, 2008.