Novel of the week

Rough Music

Patrick Gale <em>Flamingo, 374pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0002261219

At first glance, Rough Music appears to be a straightforward family saga based on two summer holidays separated by 30 years. Patrick Gale sets his story in a comfortable, English middle-class milieu. He establishes an economic context for each character. They have jobs, children, responsibilities. The Cornish beach house, which appears under two different names, is the haunted house of sexual possibility where Frances, the mother in this tale, has an illicit affair with her brother-in-law. Her son, Julian, betrays her. Thirty years later in the very same house, Julian, now having an affair with his own brother-in-law, is on the receiving end of his mother's "rough music". Gale's title comes from Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge - in particular, the scene in which the neighbours blow the sexual whistle on the mayor and his mistress. Thus the adulterers and queers suffer the same humiliating exposure and public dressing-down. But Gale's novel is full of surprises and reversals. Sex matters. Desire is a family affair. Sandy is the married man who falls for his brother-in-law. Once the affair is over, he realises that it wasn't just a quick shag on the side. He was in love.

The structure of Rough Music is a masterstroke. Gale runs the two narratives alongside each other, shifting from the 1960s catastrophic family trip to "Beachcomber", to the contemporary holiday from hell at "Blue House". Repetition is a crucial element in the uncanny. The same situations and places recur, familiar but transformed. Gale sets the two narratives on collision course, thus increasing the urgency of his novel - which is, in fact, a parable about sexual honesty and the love that can be built only on candour and passion.

Wandsworth Prison, a crucial presence in the plot, becomes a metaphor for the marriage at the core of the book, which never achieves sexual lift-off. The mother is horribly punished, not for her ironic revenge on her son, but for choosing her safe, unsatisfactory life when she has seen the promise of another. She gradually succumbs to the early onset of Alzheimer's. Gale is one of the few male novelists I have read who draws with sympathy and intelligence the contradictions and confusions of heterosexual women in conventional relationships.

Gale is an optimistic writer. He takes care of his readers. We are given several endings: one is of new love and hope, where the risk of love may be rewarded with freedom and happiness. Julian, also known as Will, falls for a grumpy sculptor who now owns the beach house. Another ending is darker and confronts what the late Iris Murdoch described as the "dark Host" of Alzheimer's, the tragedy of forgetting. Frances loses her identity. But she has been doing that year after year; she has sacrificed both her family and herself to a life of respectable dishonesty and corrupting silences. There is a third ending, buried in the text within the text. Bill, the obnoxious American brother-in-law who effortlessly seduced Frances in the 1960s narrative, is writing a fictional version of the sexual catastrophe at Beachcomber. In this version, Frances refuses a life of curtailment and compromise, ditches both husband and lover, and sets out alone. This is the feminist fictional ending.

It is worth pondering the significance of the epigraphs to this novel. They are all about loss, absence, desire and the terrifying, inevitable resurgence of our own sexual betrayals, which we would rather not acknowledge. Gale is a master of register. Rough Music is, like all family histories, by turns disturbing and funny.

Patricia Duncker's Hallucinating Foucault and James Miranda Barry are published by Picador