Charles is the apple of his mother’s eye, born in Cornwall just after the end of the First World War. He becomes the focus of his mother’s life after his father dies from TB. But Charles does not want to be a “mother’s boy” and when war breaks out, he leaves his claustrophobic life in Teignmouth, enlisting in the navy as a coder.
The title of this novel has a double meaning and Patrick Gale uses both of them with skill and breadth. Charles is a boy raised as his mother’s sole outlet, the sole reason for her life, though Charles, as an adolescent, becomes aware that he is attracted to other boys, but he knows some of those boys could betray him and so much of his attraction is illegal.
This novel is set in the time between the First and Second World Wars and Gale captures the repression and social order of that time. Charles, an intelligent boy, can only stay in education until his time at grammar school ends because his mother cannot afford for him to stay any longer. Charles is also aware that his attractions are illegal, he displays a distaste for a friend who embraces his attractions, though that distaste is more driven by fear.
Joining the navy is an eye-opening experience, both professionally and emotionally. So many of his experiences affect him deeply, but he also meets other serving men who are far more comfortable with their desires and their openness pulls him along with them.
Gale captures the repression of the inter-war years but he also shows how the Second World War, with its mixing of people from all different backgrounds, brushed away so much of that repression and so many people’s lives benefited from that. His descriptions of wartime life are some of the most memorable parts of this novel.
This is Gale at the highest of his skills. He sympathetically and insightfully writes about his characters here, drawing characters that are all too recognisable, but he does not forget that he is writing about a very different time than today. It was so refreshing to read a novel set in the 1930s and 1940s where modern-day attitudes do not bleed into the narrative and characters. This reaches right through to the novel’s ending.
Here is a novel well worth the time it took to read, not a moment wasted.
Edited by Drew Payne
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