I’m now into my fifth year of blogging my book reviews and while I always thought the biggest problem with it would be trying to avoid giving too many spoilers I have now discovered a new problem.
I’ve spent much of the last few years banging on about three different books all of which have been my go-to titles whenever anyone asks for a reading recommendation – A Little Life, Tin Man and Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter.
Since I first fell in love with A Place Called Winter back at the beginning of 2015 I’ve become a bit of a champion of Gale’s work, both his books and his recent television series (2017’s Man in an Orange Shirt). I even highlighted his new novel as one of my books to look out for in 2018.
So, when special advance copies of Take Nothing with You started to head out into the world, I crossed all my fingers and auctioned off my first-born (pity that devil who’ll never receive their purchase) hoping to get a copy.
And I received a copy, and it was beautiful and I was very, very excited.
Then I realised my problem.
Whenever anyone has a big success be it with a book, or film, or album there is a pressure on the artist to produce something equally as good, but not the same, the next time around.
The anxiety that brings must be crippling, sending your book out into the world waiting for the reaction like a small dog patiently waiting for their owner to return home.
I had a taste – only a very small taste – of that, when I settled down to read Take Nothing With You. What if I didn’t like it? What if I was the one that had to kick the puppy?
With some trepidation, I opened the pages and started to read. After about ten pages, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was good. Not just good. It was as good as A Place Called Winter – if not better.
So now, I’m stuck with my original problem. How do I sell it to you all without spoiling it? How do I talk about all the things I want to talk about without ruining it for everyone? The answer is to keep it brief.
We meet Eustace at a particular point in his life, he’s in his fifties, he’s fallen in love with a man he’s never met and has just been diagnosed with cancer. Part of his treatment involves taking a particularly radioactive drug which mean he must spend time in solitary confinement, away from everyone.
He will be so radioactive that he must take nothing with him that he would want to keep.
So, he goes in with just a cheap music player and a playlist of cello music from his best friend Naomi. He lies down, begins to listen, and then remembers – taking the reader with him – his childhood, growing up in Weston-Super-Mare.
And here is where the magic happens.
Such beautiful writing transports us into the head of that twelve-year-old boy as he deals with his own burgeoning sexuality, the breakdown of his parent’s marriage and an exploration of an unexpected new passion – the cello.
I could sing for hours about the poetry of the writing or the subtlety of the plot but it is in the richness of the characters that Gale really excels himself. Each character, no matter how minor, is vivid leaving the reader wanting more.
In most books the main characters are obvious, their depth making them stand out from all others, a clue to the reader as to which characters you should care about, which ones you should watch, and which ones you don’t need to remember the name of.
That’s not the case here. In the moments they appear all the characters are important, all of them real. None of us can know as we’re living our lives who will be important and who won’t be, and so to Eustace at the time he encounters them they are all important. The things he notices, the people he sees, all of it helps us as a reader inhabit his world.
I’ve never read a book before where the minor characters have intrigued me quite so much.
A Little Life was about Malcolm, JB, Willem and Jude St Francis; The Time Traveler’s Wife was about Henry DeTamble and his wife Clare; Tin Man is the story of Annie and Michael and Ellis. All of these names are imprinted on me in a way that I can reel them off without having to look them up.
This book takes its place amongst all of those titles (equal on my spreadsheet – OF COURSE I have a spreadsheet – to The Time Traveler’s Wife) in my list of favourite books, and while Eustace’s name will come to me as readily as all those others, I think the names of Vernon and Carla Gold and Turlough and Jez won’t be far behind him.
They all have their own tales to tell, but this is Eustace’s and the whole experience felt as cathartic to me as it did for Eustace himself. Perhaps because – as many other readers will probably experience – so many of the moments in his earlier life are similar to mine. I won’t share with you what they were – they’re for my own private lead-lined box – but I will tell you… I never played the cello.
Take Nothing With You will be published by Tinder Press on 21st August 2018