Patrick Gale sadly missed out on the Walter Scott Prize at the Border Book Festival but his star seems to be rising all the same. His publisher is releasing more of his books as e-books in the US and Netgalley approached me to review “The Facts of Life” for them. I was happy to oblige, this being one of the few books by Gale I hadn’t read.
This sweeping saga from the bestselling author of Notes from an Exhibition follows three generations of an English family from World War II through the AIDS crisis.
Sally Banks meets Edward Pepper when the German-Jewish soldier is lying wounded in an English hospital during World War II. After he recovers, Edward invites Sally to accompany him to a concert. Despite the fact that he’s several years her junior, they begin dating and, little by little, reveal themselves to each other. Sally is horrified to learn that Edward’s parents died in a concentration camp and that he has no idea whether his older sister, Miriam, survived.
When they marry, Sally settles into her role as housewife while Edward finds work writing movie scores. Soon Sally gives birth to a daughter they name Miriam. Then Edward has a fleeting, guilt-ridden affair with an actress, and suffers a physical and emotional breakdown. The decades pass. Edward, now a successful composer, attempts to help his grandchildren come to terms with the harsh realities of contemporary life.
Twenty-five-year-old Jamie has anonymous sex with strangers he picks up on the street or at the gym. His older sister, Alison, an editor at a publishing house, feels she’s “still marking time,” waiting for her real life to begin. Then she uncovers a secret in Edward’s past that shatters her image of her grandfather. Jamie falls in love with Sam, ushering in an idyllic life—until he discovers he’s HIV-positive. His illness brings his mother, who insists her children call her Miriam, back into his life with a vengeance. And for Edward, it will take a tragedy to bring a relationship begun years earlier full circle.
The Facts of Life gallops across the eras, through war and peace and the battleground of AIDS. With equal doses of irony and pathos and featuring a cast of smart, self-aware characters whose brittle outer shells conceal a terrifying fragility, this is a compulsively readable family saga that defies our expectations even as it pulls at our heartstrings.
This is a rather engaging and well written family saga, spanning several generations. I was drawn to the idea of a novel about a musician who survived the holocaust and his new life in the UK. The immigrant / outsider perspective of Britain, especially after WW2, the difficult times, hardships and personal development are well portrayed and make this first half a particularly rich and rewarding part of this novel.
The second half of the novel forms a contrast as we move into modern times – the novel was written in the 1990s. This time it is the grand children who learn the facts of life. For anyone who has lived those times in Britain, as this reader did, this will ring very true and remind you of the struggles.
While other reviewers felt that the two parts didn’t connect well, I disagree. Contrast, juxtaposition and play on similar themes are there in abundance if you look for them and provide much food for thought – especially reading this twenty years after its first publication.
The book contains some explicit scenes and difficult subjects, so it isn’t an easy read, least alone for its length. It is, however, thought provoking, captivating and rewarding.
I was given a copy of the ebook via netgalley for review. Since I had read most of Gale’s other books I couldn’t say no. Definitely recommended.
Patrick was born on 31 January 1962 on the Isle of Wight, where his father was prison governor at Camp Hill, as his grandfather had been at nearby Parkhurst. He was the youngest of four; one sister, two brothers, spread over ten years. The family moved to London, where his father ran Wandsworth Prison, then to Winchester. At eight Patrick began boarding as a Winchester College Quirister at the cathedral choir school, Pilgrim’s. At thirteen he went on to Winchester College. He finished his formal education with an English degree from New College, Oxford in 1983.
He has never had a grown-up job. For three years he lived at a succession of addresses, from a Notting Hill bedsit to a crumbling French chateau. While working on his first novels he eked out his slender income with odd jobs; as a typist, a singing waiter, a designer’s secretary, a ghost-writer for an encyclopedia of the musical and, increasingly, as a book reviewer.
His first two novels, The Aerodynamics of Pork and Ease were published by Abacus on the same day in June 1986. The following year he moved to Camelford near the north coast of Cornwall and began a love affair with the county that has fed his work ever since.
He now lives in the far west, on a farm near Land’s End with his husband, Aidan Hicks. There they raise beef cattle and grow barley. Patrick is obsessed with the garden they have created in what must be one of England’s windiest sites and deeply resents the time his writing makes him spend away from working in it. As well as gardening, he plays both the modern and baroque cello. His chief extravagance in life is opera tickets.