Gentleman's Relish
 by Patrick Gale

Fourth Estate
2010, Paperback

"By instinct, he raised the casket to his face and sniffed its insides. There was none of the normal antique smell – no ghost of bergamot or lavender dust. There was only the unmistakably frank musk of warm, male groin. It cut through the honeyed overlay of the polish he’d applied earlier like a dirty laugh in a silent order."

Reviewed by Sarah Hilary

There’s something very comforting about this collection, despite the huge carving knife that gleams from the front cover. Perhaps it’s the title. Gentleman’s relish is an acquired taste but one I associate with this time of year, with high tea in hotels, sheltering from the nasty weather.

The jacket blurbs dish up an excess of culinary puns, involving words like "spiced", "tenderness", "sharp" and, with less subtlety, "succulent titbits". Yes, one of the most satisfying stories in the collection is Cookery, but it can be best described as a homily to domestic vengeance, as the hero extracts a sedate and then savage price for his father’s life-long homophobia.

"Cookery is power," his mother teaches him. By the time Perry turns ten "his creation of a puffball and bacon roulade has seduced a new neighbour and demoralized the neighbour’s wife". Perry’s father doesn’t approve of his son as an apron-wearing domestic god, however, and packs the poor boy off to a boarding school "handpicked for its sporty philosophy and lack of opportunities for any science more domestic than the use of Ralgex and Universal Embrocation."

Perry survives this indignity and the remainder of the story is told with the perfectly-pitched voice of the semi-repressed, bitter young survivor he’s become. We don’t guess how bitter until the end of the story. Gale establishes a dark strand of humour early on and maintains it throughout, never once hitting a wrong note. Perhaps this is where the comfort comes from: these are new stories told in an old-fashioned manner, easy to read but painstakingly alert to human strengths and weaknesses.

Several of the stories deal with subjects that Gale knows inside out. The Lesson is about what it’s like to be living close to a prison without being an inmate. Jane, the wife of a prison governor, strikes up a friendship with a prisoner who teaches her how to fish. The story is woven through with loneliness, with optimism and its opposite. There’s a hint that the inmate pays a price for his friendship with Jane; "an act of violence" results in his privileges being taken away overnight. We never find out what happened, or why. More than once in this collection we sense a hidden story unravelling somewhere off-page, just out of sight. This sensation isn’t always frustrating, but in The Lesson I did yearn to know more.

Gale draws again on his personal experiences in Petals on a Pool, which tells of two writers bonding at a convention in Hong Kong, both suffering the same humiliating lack of interest from the invited audience. The ending is unclear. Did the heroine Edith imagine what she saw floating among the petals in the pool, or did her new friend meet with a terrible fate? I was unsure of the effect Gale was trying to create.

I felt no such uncertainty at the ambiguous ending to Obedience, where a hint of suspicion falls on the hen-pecked hero for the murder of an unpopular village resident. I didn’t believe for a minute that he was the murderer, but it was interesting to see how the idea of suspicion altered his wife’s attitude towards him: "from something in her voice he sensed the distinct possibility of sex." You don’t need to know whodunit, in other words, in order to enjoy this story.

There are some fine horror stories in this collection, told with genuine wit and relish. Making Hay tells how an elderly woman takes her revenge for the dumping of her grandchildren at the home where she’s living. She tells the two very modern kids a tale of family folklore that unfolds into a gory story that has them (and us) gripped.

"The trick," she confided in Prue as Nurse wheeled in the tea things and wheeled out Miss Tregenza, "is to spike the narrative with just a seasoning of solid, agricultural fact."

Like Perry in Cookery, the grandmother in Making Hay is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the "trick" Gale refers to is one he’s mastered wonderfully. Each of his horror stories has just enough solidity to draw us in before he deals the deadly blow.

Hushèd Casket is a small masterpiece, comic and compelling, with a light touch that makes it great fun to read. Chris and Hugo are on honeymoon when Chris discovers an old tea casket in an abandoned church. Forcing its lock, he releases a macabre spirit that transforms Hugo into an irresistible sex magnet. There’s a beautifully played moment midway through the story when the reader guesses what will happen if Chris succeeds in passing the cursed casket to a new owner. Chris, bless him, remains oblivious.

Sleep Tight is the most unsettling of the horror stories here. A small boy fears the Moth Lady will take him in the night. His taciturn uncle dismisses the child’s fears, but the story swiftly moves from domestic unease to full-blown nightmare.

Not every story has a horror component, but each dissects the impact of people trying to come together or break apart. Freedom is a lovely history of a family caravan that’s helped generations of the same family escape from the limits of their lives. The Excursion deals with the tyranny of prejudice and small-mindedness (you could call this a horror story, because of that subject matter). There are stories about music festivals and strange dreams, and a quirky bonus story in the shape of Fourth of July, 1862, written to celebrate the anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland.

This is a solid collection that shows, above all else, that there’s merit in the traditional form of story-telling: lure your reader with the familiar, and thereafter you can deal what (strange, perverse or poignant) cards you like.

Browse inside this book at Harper Collins

See Patrick Gale read one of the stories in this collection at the Cambridge WordFest on Nov 27th 2010

Sarah Hilary won the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and was a Fish prize-winner in 2008. Her fiction appears in The Fish Anthology, Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction I and II, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2009, and Highly Commended in the Sean O’Faolain short story competition 2010.

Sarah's other Short Reviews: Katherine Mansfield "The Collected Stories"   

Muriel Spark "The Complete Short Stories"   

"I.D. Crimes of Identity" anthology

Susan DiPlacido "American Cool" 

Sophie Hannah "The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets"

Benjamin Percy "Refresh, Refresh"

Chavisa Woods "Love Does Not Make me Gentle or Kind"

Jennifer Pelland "Unwelcome Bodies"

Laura Solomon "Alternative Medicine"

Patricia Highsmith "Nothing that Meets the Eye"

Grace Paley "Collected Stories"

Peter Gordon "Man Receives a Letter"
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Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight in 1962. He spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, which his father governed, then grew up in Winchester. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End. His most recent novels are Notes from an Exhibition and The Whole Day Through.

Read an interview with Patrick Gale