CULTURE: LUKE MARLOWE
This month's book club looks at two new novels, both exploring the themes of sexual awakenings and coming of age; Matt Cain's The Madonna of Bolton, and Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale.
Despite the statistics showing that an increasing percentage of our society identify as on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, representation in the media still hasn’t caught up – leaving it a struggle to find films or books that accurately represent the truth of growing up and living life as gay.
Happily though, author Patrick Gale has been writing about gay characters for the entirety of his career. Starting with The Aerodynamics of Pork back in 1985, his works have always included gay characters from various walks of life and offering insights into the gay experience while crafting tender, touching and carefully considered plots exploring everything from modern-day grief through to Canadian prairie life in the early 20th Century.
In Take Nothing With You, we find perhaps Gale’s most autobiographical work to date, as the reader meets Eustace, a fifty-something gay Londoner who, in the same week, falls hopefully in love with a man he’s never met, and learns he has cancer of the thyroid.
As radioactive therapy causes him to spend 24 hours isolated in a hospital ward, Eustace remembers his adolescence spent in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare. As his passion for music leads him into an encounter with the glamorous cellist Carla Gold, Eustace sees his family begin to fall apart.
Asked to read in the library at Weston-Super-Mare, Gale was intrigued as to what growing up in the seaside resort must have been like and used this combined with his own experiences of family and a childhood spent playing music to draw together this vivid and relatable read.
Gale’s strength has always been his superb grasp of character. For me he’s up there with greats like Iris Murdoch and Anne Tyler in his innate understanding of people and what makes them tick.
His characters may make bad decisions but they’re always readable, relatable and utterly real. There’s no better example than in the case of a character like Eustace.
In gay literature the story of a gay teenager having his sexual awakening may have been told many times, but Eustace’s tale is different in that it feels grounded in a very real place. There are no Call Me By Name peach scenes here but instead it focuses on experiences that feel familiar to me, and no doubt to a huge range of readers.
One thing to note is that Gale isn’t afraid to go into some detail when it comes to Eustace’s study of the cello. Readers without a background or familiarity in classical music may find this aspect a little repetitive as the book goes on but as someone who spent a great deal of time on music retreats and in endless music lessons as a child, this aspect rang true, and adds a fascinating layer to Eustace’s journey and how the music impacts both his life and that of his family.
The only slight complaint is I wish there had been more of the older Eustace – a fascinating character who serves mainly as a framing device for the main plot, but is so well drawn in his brief moments that I longed to read more of his life. Perhaps this can be saved for another book?
This is another triumph for Gale. Take Nothing With You is moving, funny, and familiar. The autobiographical elements ensuring an immediacy and openness that convey Eustace’s journey in a frank, warm and direct style. It’s a read that will be loved by many, and is a reminder of the difficulties both of youth and middle age, but shot through with lightness to ensure the read is enjoyable throughout. LM
Take nothing with you by Patrick Gale is available on hardback through Tinder Press
Also touching on sexual awakenings of another kind, former editor of Attitude magazine Matt Cain sees the release of his long-awaited and much-publicised novel The Madonna of Bolton.
It made the headlines last year when it was rejected by numerous publishing houses for being ‘too gay’. After a hugely successful crowd-funding campaign, it's become Unbound's fastest-ever-funded novel with pledges from David Walliams, S.J. Watson and Mark Gatiss, and is published to coincide with the pop queen's 60th birthday celebrations. The film rights have also been sold to Live Nation Productions.
As for the book, while it won’t be bothering the judges of the Man Booker Prize anytime soon, it’s nevertheless an enjoyable romp of nostalgia and pathos, charting the coming-of-age tale of young Madonna fan Charlie.
His obsession with the American singer sees him through some tough times in life, from being persecuted at school through to his university days, before a glamorous career in London beckons.
Madonna's music and videos provide the backdrop to his story, inspiring him in the face of adversity and providing a soundtrack to life's many travails and broken hearts. Ultimately his idol's ballsy determination to succeed imbues him with a confidence to make his own way and find his own voice.
It's an easy and funny read, and will speak to anyone who has looked up to someone famous in order to get them through the challenges of being alive. RI
The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain is available now through Unbound.