The opening scenes of Patrick Gale’s latest novel, A Place Called Winter, are disturbing, hellish even. The protagonist, Harry Cane, is led by two nursing assistants to a bath. His legs and arms are restrained while he is placed on a hammock inside the bath. A thick tarpaulin cover is pulled over the entire bath so only his head is held, immobile, above the water. And then, he is left there, unable to move. This is the punishment meted out against those against “violent” and “excited” patients at mental asylums in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Harry isn’t insane. He knows that. But he can barely remember how he came to be in Essondale asylum.
Harry is rescued and taken to a sort of refuge, Bethel, along with other “mentally ill” patients, where a young doctor wishes to study them and try alternative treatments. It’s here, under hypnotherapy, that Harry begins to recall his prior life; the doctor’s first command: “Tell me who you love.”
As a young man Harry Cane grew up privileged in Edwardian England. Although his mother dies when he’s a small child, and his father is disinterested in him and his younger brother Jack, the two don’t want for money. When Jack falls in love and decides to marry, the shy, stammering Harry weds the older sister, Winnie. After all, that’s what wealthy young men of a certain stature do. Harry is content enough with his life and dotes on his daughter.
A chance encounter with Browning, a handsome actor, will change him forever. At first, Harry resists his impulses, but the voice inside him says “nothing of family or wholesomeness.” Harry submits to an illicit year-long affair, his passion fueled by the fear of discovery (homosexuality was punishable by several years in prison or hard labour). “He’d never had a job, so until then his life had enjoyed a smooth interconnectedness, like that of a young woman… His afternoon visits to Browning’s brass bed exposed his clothed life as a sham, even as they awoke in him a whorish shamelessness he recognised as his buried essence.”
Eventually, Harry’s secret is discovered. Blackmail forces him to abandon his wife and child under the pretext of seeking his fortune as a pioneer in untamed Canada; a second future that would guarantee his family’s security and happiness, and protect his secret. Despite having to leave behind comfort, Harry is excited by the prospect of starting anew. And so, at the age of 30, he sets out for virgin prairie territory, where he’ll be given a plot of land and three years in which to turn it into a proper farm.
On his voyage to Canada, Harry meets the brutish Troels Munck, a man he’s both drawn to and repulsed by. The Briton accepts Troel’s suggestion to work on a Danish family farm for a year in order to learn the ropes, and avoid the fate of so many other pilgrims who fail for sheer lack of knowledge. Harry manages to find peace through hard labour and working the land.
When his year is up, Harry is able to start clearing a section of land as his own, in a desolate place called Winter. With each bit of ground he tames, Harry’s quarter section brings him happiness and love, but also horror, violence, and tragedy. It is after a vicious incident involving Troels that Harry is committed first to a mental hospital, and then to the much more sympathetic Bethel.
Here, Harry befriends a transgender Cree woman, Ursula, who agrees to help him recover his fragmented memories during a ritual ceremony, and perhaps, he can find the loved ones he’s forgotten that he’s left behind.
Gale, who is one of Britain’s most prolific writers (17 novels over the past 20 years), narrates the plot beautifully. He loosely based the story on his own great-grandfather, who left behind a family to make a new life in Canada. Gale tried to imagine why his ancestor would make such a decision, turned him into a homosexual and built the story from there. The author also spent much time doing research in Canada, around the actual Winter. There he discovered the horrific treatment of the Native American populations, a sub-theme in his book (for more on this listen my interview with Gale below).
A Place Called Winter is a highly enjoyable epic-adventure tale, as well as an elegiac love story that explores sexuality, friendship, and hope, with tenderness and intimacy.
“In the weeks that followed, he lost all sense of days of the week. If the sun was up, he worked; if down, he slept. After twice mistakenly trying to buy supplies from Winter’s still rudimentary dry goods store on a Sunday, he picked up a simple seed merchant’s calendar, so he might cross off the days as they passed. Rather than being overwhelmed by the size and number of tasks before him, he made lists and broke them down into further lists. Building winterproof shelter for both himself and the horses (whom he mischievously christened Kitty and May, after Winnie’s flighty young sisters) was clearly essential…
Clearing, as he had learnt at Jørgensen’s, was slow work, best done methodically, felling useful trees first, using the horses to pull out such stumps as he couldn’t burn, clearing scrub and the larger stones, and only then attempting to plough.
And in this place, attempting was the word.”
Rating: 4 out of 5
A Place Called Winter is published in South Africa by Jonathan Ball Publishers.