A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale
Barnaby Johnson couldn't prevent his young parishioner Lenny from killing himself because the poison he took worked too quickly. Instead, all Barnaby could do was pray and sit by as he died, as that was all that was left to do, and it was the right thing. And that's what Barnaby was known for by all people in his life - or at least that's how it seemed on the surface. Upon closer scrutiny, things aren't all that perfect and not everyone has always been good. This is "A Perfectly Good Man" by Patrick Gale.
There's one thing that readers can always count on with books by Patrick Gale, and that is characters whose faults catch you off balance and then reel you in because of them. In other words, Gale's ability to make these people empathetic to his readers is the key to his talent. With this work, he focuses so strongly on these characters, that each chapter is named after one of them, along with the age that person was when the action you are about to read takes place. What's more, he flips back and forth along the timelines of these characters, handing us a puzzle that slowly allows the full picture to emerge.
The mechanic of one chapter devoted to one character and one specific time in that character's life is nothing new. In fact lots of writers have used it with varying levels of success. What makes this book's format unusual is how large the jumps in time are, and how they are so totally non-chronological. As an example, the first chapter of this book is Lenny at 20, and the last one is Barnaby at 8! The reason why this works so effectively is because Gale never falters in being totally committed to telling his story in this way. There is never a misstep where we get a hint of foreshadowing or fall back into a memory from the past. Basically, what it feels like Gale did was to write each his characters' histories in pure "real time", and then throw all the chapters up in the air only to be randomly reassembled.
This doesn't mean that the book is confusing, because it really isn't at all. And I truly doubt there was any randomness in how Gale decided to place each chapter. In fact, the seemingly casual way in which these chapters are assembled is what makes the book so striking. What's more, because the reader gets only a taste of the various characters, as each chapter ends, they'll already be hungry for more.
What's more, Gale also plays on the ambiguity of the title here. In this I mean that a man being "perfectly good" could mean that his being good is something he does faultlessly. However, there's always that niggling feeling that behind the phrase "perfectly good" is a touch of irony. Almost as if the word "enough" was missing from the title. And this is something that most readers will feel as they read this book.
Of course, these subtle and surprising aspects make reviewing such a book all the more difficult. Yes, I could go into each of the characters, but telling you much about them would certainly lead to spoilers. Being adamantly opposed to that, perhaps it is best to say that if you're looking for a book that is a compelling read and beautifully written with characters you can understand and empathize with, then go out and get yourself a copy of Patrick Gale's "A Perfectly Good Man" right now! For all this, I cannot give it less than a full five out of five stars and highly recommend it.
"A Perfectly Good Man" by Patrick Gale published by the Fourth Estate, London on March 15, 2012, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris or Better World Books.