I was confused by the title of Facing the Tank, Patrick Gale’s novel of 1980’s life in beautiful Barrowcester (pronounced Brewster), a provincial cathedral town that is sadly fictional. It is one of those towns that populate British fiction where social mores are skewered with equal parts humor and compassion. The authors pen is sharp and sometimes wicked, but they cannot help loving their imperfect people.
Like most of its kind, Facing the Tank is full of characters who are going about their multiple story lines, crossing over here and there, connecting and socializing and commenting on each other, but often completely unaware of each other’s reality, despite the frequent gossiping. We start with the out of town visitor, Evan. He’s an American expert on angels and demons and his presence gave me the completely wrong impression at first, I was beginning to expect some sort of horror story. Thankfully, the humorous cast of Gale’s descriptions cleared that up quickly.
He stays with Mercedes, a Spanish landlady, a woman of mystery even to herself as she has had amnesia for nearly 30 years. Her daughter is pregnant by a Roman Catholic Cardinal and the papers are camping on the front steps. There’s Gavin, the local bishop whose shocked society with a fiery extemporaneous sermon discovering angel wings in the tomb of the local cathedral’s saint while his mother is having seances. There’s a Satinist housekeeper whose looking for the perfect incantation to find her lost daughter. There’s the hilarious Lydia and Clive, ostensibly open-minded and liberal until their gay son decides to marry a black woman. More seriously, he lies to his fiancée about his AIDS test imagining her as the first woman to test positive for AIDS and being greeted by cheers. The gay interior designer’s partner recently died of cancer, not AIDS, but he tells his lover’s family it was AIDS, angered by their not-so-subtly homophobic dismissal of him. Meanwhile Lydia is matchmaking him with a local young woman and his mother is losing her mind to senility.
So much is happening, some of it quite awful and some of it very funny, for example, a thirteen year old student imagines he may have impregnated the family dog because she happened to come in the room and lick him while he was masturbating. Lydia and Clive’s wedding preparations are everything racist condescension could create, with all the recipes taken from a book on Caribbean cooking to dressing down because they cannot imagine wealthy black people and desperately not wanting to make the bride’s parents feel poor.
Facing the Tank is the first book by Patrick Gale I have read, which is good news because that means I can expect to read several more good books in the future. From looking at his bibliography, several are in Barrowcester. I am glad, I want to know what happens to some of these folks after the book. This is not a book that winds up every single storyline, though I will assure you that Crispin’s Lottie did not have puppies with human faces.
While Facing the Tank does a great job of satirizing the foibles and prejudices of the comfortably off, this is not a story firmly rooted in reality and I don’t just mean the seances.The reason for the title is a bit ridiculous, but explaining it would be a spoiler, I think, so I will just say, undertakers can remove things from people’s hands after death. They will just break the bones if necessary. They won’t make a bigger coffin. I also think having a character keep an AIDS diagnosis secret is too problematic to let it just lie there unquestioned.
There is this odd mix of humor and harrowing what with scary things in the river under the cathedral and the Satanist’s pregnancy and loss of her daughter. This is more than a comedy of manners and sometimes the mix is just right and sometimes it’s a bit off.
I think the “if you liked that, then you will like this” algorithms work better for music than books. I am more often led astray by the assurance that liking one book makes my enjoyment of another nearly a certainty, nonetheless when a marketing coordinator reached out to me via email suggesting I might like Facing the Tank because I liked The Sea Change, I thought why not? I am glad I did. I really enjoyed this book and want to read more.
I was provided a promotional copy of Facing the Tank by the publisher through NetGalley.