Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 16, 2016

A Place Called Winter, by Patrick Gale

A Place Called Winter I stumbled on this book by way of its sharing the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction Prize shortlist with Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek.  This is not a prize that’s normally on my radar, but I was interested to see that the shortlist included other novels I’d read:

  • Sweet Caress by William Boyd (Bloomsbury) (abandoned)
  • A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (Tinder Press)
  • Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea (Scribe UK) (see my review)
  • End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie (Quartet) (I want this, but haven’t sourced it yet.)
  • Tightrope by Simon Mawer (Little,Brown) (see my review)
  • Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (Picador Australia) (see my review)

The wonderful Kingston library came up trumps with the Boyd and the Gale, and they seemed like ideal books to complement my reading of Xavier Herbert’s  Poor Fellow My Country, a book so heavy (literally) and so dense with characters and intersecting plot lines that I can only read it in the daytime.  (Like I said before, don’t hold your breath waiting for the review, I’m now up to page 265 of 1400+, reading about 50 pages a day, I reckon it will be mid-May before I finish it.)  

Well, I tried the Boyd but abandoned it (you can see why at Goodreads), but I romped through A Place Called Winter in a day.  It’s quite different in style to Notes from an Exhibition (see my review), but it was the difference in subject matter that made me reflect after I had finished reading it.

When a thing has always been forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.

A Place Called Winter is about the travails of Harry Cane, forced to abandon his wife and child in Edwardian England when his covert homosexual activities become known to his brother-in-law.  He goes to Canada, to take up a free land grant, and from a stuttering, shy man who had never done a day’s work in his life, he becomes a physically strong farmer quietly proud of his capacity to endure.  But he becomes enmeshed with a loathsome exploiter called Troels Munck, and in the hands of an expert storyteller like Gale, that leads to a climax that makes the book hard to put down.  Especially since the reader knows that something terrible has happened, because the story is bookended with Harry’s treatment in one of those dreadful C20th institutions for the insane and then in an experimental facility.

Reading this book, and indeed, finding it on a mainstream prize shortlist, made me realise how much the discourse around homosexuality has changed in the course of my reading life.   Although I have had gay friends since my late teens, it was not until 1997 when I read E.M. Forster’s Maurice posthumously published in 1971 (see my thoughts at Goodreads) that I began to understand anything at all.  If I had read anything in the way of gaylit prior to that, the allusions were so well-masked that they passed me by.  What I liked about A Place Called Winter is that although it is a sad story about the dangers of a love that was then illicit, it normalises the love that the characters feel.  They’re just two blokes in love.

A Place Called Winter draws on similar ideas to Maurice, locating the lovers in a remote haven, but the trajectory of the novel shows that even in a place where letters take months to arrive and the news of impending war is slow to make an impact, trouble will find them.  That’s an authentic situation in that time and place, and Gale’s capacity to depict the sad inevitability of discovery and its consequences is a reminder that there are places around the world where this situation still exists.

This is a beaut novel.  It is epic storytelling, with a strong narrative drive and wonderful characterisation.  Neighbour to Harry and sister to his lover Paul, Petra is a strong character also struggling in her own way with gendered societal expectations.  The contrast with the limp hypocrisies of Britain is stark, as is the contrast between the harsh Canadian landscape and the genteel parlours of London.  The dispossession of the indigenous Cree people is only lightly acknowledged but I liked the respectful way Gale wrote about them and included Petra’s interest in their culture and traditional knowledge.  In a strong shortlist, this novel has to be a strong contender.

Simon Savidge’s review will make you want to read it too. (And yes, he links the book to Brokeback Mountain, a film I haven’t seen though I (sort of) know what it’s about).

Author: Patrick Gale
Title: A Place Called Winter
Publisher: Tinder Books, 2015
ISBN: 9781472205308
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond A Place Called Winter and good bookstores everywhere.


  1. I’m glad to see you give this a positive review. Most I have read have been lukewarm. The setting (the province next to the one I live in) and the gay theme are of interest, but I am hoping for a light, entertaining read, should I find time for one. I also, in all truth, bought a copy to have Patrick sign it and engage him in a conversation about the Open Books Festival in Cape Town which he had been at a few weeks before he was in my town. I’d been to South Africa and we talked at length about the challenges with the literary scene there (high prices and low literacy).


    • Well, we all need a bit of light, entertaining fiction every now and again, and I think this one is what is sometimes called cross-over fiction, neither literary nor genre fiction, or alternatively, a bit of both. I’ll be interested to see your review of this when you get time to read it.
      Re South Africa… do you think their challenges are similar to those in the rest of the continent?


      • I wouldn’t want to speak for the rest of Africa, but in South Africa books are very expensive and predominately English and Afrikaans. There are efforts to increase availability of publications, especially for children in isiXhosa and isiZulu. But then there are still another 7 official languages! The book market in general is small and authors make very little. Cookbooks, gardening and sports books outstrip anything that looks like literature. Finally, mail delivery is so unreliable that shipping books or ordering them into the country is difficult.

        I did my part though. I spent over R3000 ($300) on books when I visited and had to buy an extra bag to get them home! :)


        • I don’t know much about the SA scene: I’m trying to read more from the continent in general but in SA I really only know of Gordimer, Brink & Zakes Mda.


          • I am a huge fan of Damon Galgut, Ivan Vladislavić, Ingrid Winterbach, Michiel Heyns, Breyten Breytenbach. Masanda Ntshanga a young writer whose first novel is just out in the US is worth watching. I still have many to explore but if you want some ideas I always recommend my friend Penny deVries’ site: She set herself a goal of reading only SA fiction last year. She lives in Durban and reads widely, especially some of the younger black writers.


            • I’d forgotten about Damon Galgut, I discovered him when he was nominated for the defunct Commonwealth Writers Prize when the ceremony was held here in Melbourne, and I’ve read a couple of his since. But I don’t know the others, will add them to my wishlist at Goodreads, thanks:)


            • Have ordered The Restless Supermarket, but am baffled by that blog, I can’t find anywhere to subscribe or an archives or index page.


              • I’ll give Penny your feedback about her blog. There is an archive by month if you click the bars in the upper right corner, but she would be wise to add a clear subscribe option. She adopted that new look a few months back.


                • Yes,. it’s frustrating for readers if options aren’t readily accessible.


  2. I looked up Walter Scott prize. It’s for historical fiction, defined as more than 60 years ago – which I think was the timeframe for Scott’s Waverly.
    I think I may have heard an interview for this book on RadioNational Books & Arts last year. (And Brokeback Mountain is a fine movie, get the video and order in pizza).


    • Nah, I don’t watch Hollywood movies!


      • No to the movie? It was a novella by Annie Proux first – so maybe read it instead?


  3. I’m one of those people to which roughghosts points who gave it a lukewarm review. Glad to see you enjoyed it. I’ve not read Maurice but have seen the movie.


    • That movie Maurice was woeful. Woeful, woeful, woeful. I watched it just recently on DVD and was so bitterly disappointed by what they had done to the book. I think was extra cross because, well, you know how people talk about a book that changed them? Maurice is the book that changed me because prior to that I thought it was just a matter of people needing to be open-minded. Maurice made me realise that society needed to change at the institutional level. It made me think about human rights. It made me think about the psychological damage done by the churches. It’s not really a love story, it’s a clarion call for change.


      • I can’t remember much about it, to be honest. I saw it at least 20 years ago.


  4. At the start of your review, I immediately thought of Brokeback Mountain. A beautiful movie. I think I’ll like this book.


    • I’m sure you would, Karen.
      Reading it, it made me wonder why we don’t have an Australian version of this. Australia, like Canada, was seen as a kind of Arcadia, a fresh new place that could be moulded into a bold new society. It was one of the most progressive places in the world at federation. I am sure that some of the young men who came out here alone into what was still in some places basically a womanless world, had dreams of a place that offered them tranquillity instead of harassment. Has someone written this novel?


  5. Sounds like this was a good one to follow after Boyd.


    • I couldn’t be bothered with the Boyd. I’ll be interested to see which one wins the award. I’d love to get my hands on End Games in Bordeaux…


      • I thought the sex scenes were particularly bad.


  6. […] (see my review) A Perfectly Good Man and the Costa shortlisted A Place Called Winter.  (See my review). His latest novel is Take Nothing With You, an elegiac story of coming of age and the […]


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