British novelist Gale (A Perfectly Good Man, 2012, etc.) creates a novel about his maternal great-grandfather, who left England at the start of the 20th century to farm in Canada.
As the novel opens shortly after World War I, Harry Cane finds himself in a mental asylum, having suffered a trauma the doctors assume occurred in battle although Harry can’t remember. Chosen to participate in an experimental treatment community, Harry undergoes hypnosis to piece together his past, and he remembers being largely neglected by his wealthy widower father. In contrast to his outgoing, sunny younger brother, Jack, who becomes a veterinarian, shy stutterer Harry has not worked a day in his life by age 28. He has, however, married Winnie Wells and become a father to a baby. The placid marriage lacks passion; Winnie admitted on the honeymoon that she still loves another man. After bad financial advice from Winnie’s brother plunges both Harry and Winnie’s family into financial distress, Winnie’s younger sister, Pattie, ends up dancing in musical comedies as a Gaiety Girl. She introduces Harry to an actor/voice instructor whom Harry sees for a year to cure his stutter and his sexual loneliness. Then an incriminating note falls into the wrong hands and Winnie’s brothers banish Harry from England. In Canada, Harry apprentices with a Danish farm family for a year, then buys a parcel of land in Saskatchewan. While he mourns the loss of wife, daughter, and brother, he enjoys his freedom and finds his sense of himself as a farmer. Gale juxtaposes Harry’s present life as a patient with his memories—through which an evil shadow lurks.
A bit plodding at times and the sexual angle feels almost old-hat, but Gale creates in Harry a complicated, ultimately sympathetic hero.