Barnaby Johnson, the priestly protagonist in Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man, was eight years old when his uncle offered him two gifts—the possibility of God and permission not to always be good. Barnaby accepts one gift, but largely resists the other.
Three characters in retreat
A Perfectly Good Man, like several of Gale’s novels, is set in Cornwall’s west country, and centres on the mining villages of Pendeen and Morvah. Into these insular villages, Gale introduces three strangers. The first to arrive is Barnaby Johnson, initially as curate, but later as priest of a small clutch of unfashionable churches. Barnaby is followed by Modest Carlson, recently released from jail after serving a sentence for the rape of one of his students. Modest insinuates himself menacingly into the life of the parish. Last to arrive is Nuala Barnes, a gifted potter and non-churchgoer, fleeing an abusive ex-husband in Melbourne. The lives from which Modest and Nuala are in retreat are clear; Barnaby’s motives in seeking out this patch of Cornwall are less transparent.
Joining Barnaby to create the local vicarage family are his solidly practical wife, Dorothy, and their two children, Carrie and Phuc, the latter adopted from Vietnam as a three-year-old.
Multiple viewpoints and discontinuous time frames
A Perfectly Good Man unfolds from multiple viewpoints and across discontinuous time frames. Seven of the 19 chapters are told from Barnaby’s perspective; of the remainder, two each are revealed by Dorothy, Carrie, Phuc, Modest, Nuala and Nuala’s son, Lenny. It is Lenny who provides the arresting opening to the novel.
Wheelchair-bound following a rugby accident, Lenny is meticulously preparing for his suicide. He invites Barnaby to his death watch. ‘I’m going to die,’ he tells the priest. ‘We’re all going to die,’ replies Barnaby, choosing a metaphysical response, rather than a more immediate and tangible one. When Lenny swallows his Nembutal-laced drink, Barnaby does not immediately phone for an ambulance. He first administers the rite of Extreme Unction and, only after that, does he place telephone calls for assistance. When the police arrive, Barnaby offers himself for arrest.
At the inquest that follows, Barnaby explains his decision:
I am a priest … I have few skills … But I do know that I can pray for a dying man’s eternal soul … I knew the circumstances were ambiguous. I thought it more honest to be arrested and trust in justice than just to slip away.
Gale’s forebears provide priestly inspiration
Inspiration for Barnaby’s character stems in part from Gale’s forebears. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were priests, and Gale suspects his father might also have been ordained had not World War II intervened and shaken up his certainties.
Gale’s fictional priest is devoted—to God, parishioners and family (possibly in that order). During Barnaby’s mid-life years of ‘self-made hell’, when his faith leaves him entirely, he relies on three things: anti-depressants, the ‘sacred routine’ of service and sacrament, and a renewed study of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.
Gale writes with convincing insight into a priest’s life. He acknowledges the ‘nervous smiles’ that often greet a man of the cloth, the excuses for non-attendance at church, and the reality of time spent in social work (or ‘mopping up’ as Dorothy calls it). There is an understanding of the quality of silence and the appeal of ‘mystery’ in the priestly vocation. And there is the not uncommon perception, sensed in the novel by 12-year-old Phuc, that some priests are most themselves when standing before a congregation ‘transformed by vestments into a dazzling figure’ who seems to be ‘mother and father in a single being’.
A ‘cosily guerrilla occasion’
Gale has described A Perfectly Good Man (2012) as an ‘echo chamber’ to his 2007 novel Notes from an Exhibition. (The 2007 novel depicts a family swirling in the maelstrom of an artist mother’s bi‑polar disorder.) The later novel makes some happy connections with the earlier one: two of Rachel Kelly’s paintings appear (one a reproduction and one, providentially, an original) as does Kelly’s daughter, Morwenna.
Notes left Morwenna in a state of breakdown and unresolved trauma. Her return in A Perfectly Good Man provides the book’s most joyous scene—in a ‘cosily guerrilla occasion’, Morwenna is married. Although her relationship has already been registered as a civil partnership, this is ‘the ceremony that counted’. It begins with the female vicar declaring: ‘We are here today to bless and celebrate the union of our friends, sisters and daughters … if not with the full approval of the Church, then in the eye of God.’
A not-so-safe cocoon
Patrick Gale cocoons his readers in A Perfectly Good Man. Having been confronted with a terrible shock in the opening chapter, we then relax and begin to recover our equilibrium.
We are unprepared for the aftershocks. In fact, the ‘aftershocks’ have mostly already happened. Our time frame is askew; our perspective awry. It is as if Gale’s narrative strategy protects us from knowing too much too soon. Like scuba divers, we repeatedly descend and re-surface, each time entering the same ocean depths, but with a new companion and on a different tide.
Quod erat demonstrandum
Ultimately, readers must decide the success of Barnaby Johnson’s quod erat demonstrandum. Does he, or does he not, validate Thomas à Kempis’s proof: ‘Learned arguments do not make a man holy and righteous, whereas a good life makes him dear to God’?
Links and Sources
- Patrick Gale, A Perfectly Good Man. First published: London: Harper Collins, 2012. Available through Headline Books (UK) and Hachette (Australia).
- Patrick Gale, Notes from an Exhibition. First published: London: Fourth Estate, 2007. Available through Headline Books (UK) and Hachette (Australia).
- There is further background on A Perfectly Good Man, including reviews and an extract, on Patrick Gale’s website.
- Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (written during the 1420s). Available through PenguinRandomHouse (UK) and PenguinRandomHouse (Australia).
- ‘Morvah Church and Surrounding Fields’. Attribution: Sheila Russell. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
- ‘Wolf Rocks below Morvah Cliff’. Attribution: Sheila Russell. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
- Featured image: ‘Morvah Church’. Attribution: Bernd Weinberg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.