Laura, an impoverished Cornish girl, meets her husband when they are both in service in Teignmouth in 1916. They have a baby, Charles, but Laura’s husband returns home from the trenches a damaged man, already ill with the tuberculosis that will soon leave her a widow. In a small, class-obsessed town she raises her boy alone, working as a laundress, and gradually becomes aware that he is some kind of genius.
As an intensely private young man, Charles signs up for the navy with the new rank of coder. His escape from the tight, gossipy confines of Launceston to the colour and violence of war sees him blossom as he experiences not only the possibility of death, but the constant danger of a love that is as clandestine as his work.
Mother’s Boy is the story of a man who is among, yet apart from his fellows, in thrall to, yet at a distance from his own mother; a man being shaped for a long, remarkable and revered life spent hiding in plain sight. But it is equally the story of the dauntless mother who will continue to shield him long after the dangers of war are past.
Mother’s Boy is the latest novel from Patrick Gale. He is an author who is new to me although I’ve heard great things about his work. I thoroughly enjoyed his talk at this year’s Hay Festival, and I couldn’t resist picking up a copy of his latest novel after the event.
Mother’s Boy is a fictionalised biographical account of the early life of the poet, Charles Causey. I’m not at all familiar with Causley’s work (if I’m being honest, I hadn’t even heard of him before Gale’s talk), but don’t let that put you off if you’re considering picking up a copy. No prior knowledge of Causley or his work is needed to enjoy this novel which I found to be an incredibly warm narrative charting Causley’s life from the day his parents first meet, through his childhood, and into adulthood and his experiences in the Second World War. Pieced together from Causley’s own diaries, letters, etc. Gale has put together a plausible narrative, and while I think that some artistic licence has been taken to fill in the gaps – I don’t know how you’d prove things one way or another – it’s an engaging read that I thoroughly enjoyed, and Gale’s extrapolations make sense from what is known about Causley’s life.
While it is ostensibly a novel about Causley, it also features his mother, Laura, quite heavily. The novel begins with how his parents meet and covers their relatively brief relationship as Causley’s father, also called Charles, returns from the First World War with the tuberculosis that will eventually claim his life. Despite the unfortunate brevity, there is nevertheless the sense of a loving relationship between the two. After Charles’s death, Laura is left to bring up their son on her own, working all hours as a laundress and striving to do her best for her son. It’s a difficult life, and I love the determination that we see in Laura. She’s a woman who refuses to be cowed by circumstance and who works hard to give her son everything she can while improving their lot in life.
It’s clear from his earliest days that Charles is an intelligent – maybe even precocious – child, but popular he is not. He’s the sort that would rather have his head stuck in a book (something I sympathise with!) rather than joining in with the rough and tumble of the boyish games and activities so enjoyed by his peers. It makes Laura understandably protective of him as he’s marked as an outsider even though she knows that she can’t protect him from everything. I like the balance that she achieves in being protective without being overbearing. She also seems to understand that he is different to those around him and doesn’t try to force him to be something that he isn’t.
Charles himself is gradually built up as we see him develop from a child into a young man whose life, like so many others, will be shaped by his experiences in the Second World War. Even as a young man, he values his privacy – something that does become a bone of contention between him and Laura – and it’s something that he will become notorious for in his later life, making Gale’s job here that little bit more difficult than it might have been otherwise. We see this through Laura’s eyes, and it seems to me that she understands the reasons for it intuitively, even if she does not acknowledge those reasons aloud. Charles is a fascinating man, and I think that the privacy he valued so heavily naturally makes one more curious about him – I can understand why Gale was intrigued enough to investigate.
Mother’s Boy is a fascinating fictionalised account of a poet who seems to have slipped under the radar although that may be because I have a limited appreciation of poetry. While it is fictional, it remains plausible throughout. Gale has used the available evidence to join the dots, and while it’s possible that he’s taken two and two and made five, I’m not even slightly concerned. It’s a fantastic novel either way, and one that touches upon the experiences of those in the War and the camaraderie that develops within certain factions. It’s also about the loneliness of feeling and being different to one’s peers, as well as the bond between a mother and her child. There are some beautiful moments within its pages although it doesn’t shy away from heartbreak, either. This is a novel that will take you through the whole gamut of human emotion. Highly recommend.
Mother’s Boy is published by Tinder Press and is available now in hardback, digital, and audio formats.