A Perfectly Good Man

A Perfectly Good Man Cover

Patrick Gale

When 20-year-old Lenny Barnes, paralysed in a rugby accident, commits suicide in the presence of Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved priest of a West Cornwall parish, the tragedy's reverberations open up the fault-lines between Barnaby and his nearest and dearest. The personal stories of his wife, children and lover illuminate Barnaby's ostensibly happy life, and the gulfs of unspoken sadness that separate them all. Across this web of relations scuttles Barnaby's repellent nemesis -- a man as wicked as his prey is virtuous. Returning us to the rugged Cornish landscape of 'Notes from an Exhibition', Patrick Gale lays bare the lives and the thoughts of a whole community and asks us: what does it mean to be good?

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Author Q & A

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A Day’s Excursion through Barnaby’s Parish by Patrick Gale


Richard: This is the second time we have found ourselves compelled to pick a Patrick Gale novel for a Richard and Judy book club selection – his best-selling Notes from an Exhibition was an earlier choice.

Like that story, A Perfectly Good Man is set in Cornwall. It is hard to imagine it placed anywhere else: there is a sense of ‘otherness’ and luminosity in these glowing pages. Cornwall is known for its separateness and brilliant light.

The book opens with a shocker. Barnaby Johnson, a much-loved priest in a parish on the Atlantic seaboard in Western Cornwall, pays a home visit to 20-year-old Lenny Barnes, recently paralysed during a rugby match.

Lenny asks Barnaby to pray for him. The priest asks if there is a specific reason.

‘I’m going to die,’ the boy tells him.

‘We’re all going to die. Does dying frighten you?’

‘I mean I’m going to kill myself.’

And he does, there and then, in front of the helpless and horrified Barnaby. It is a jolting and utterly convincing start to the story. The priest is arrested and immediately demonised by a howling press as ‘The Vicar of Death’ who did nothing to help a young man dying. Only at the subsequent inquest does he get the chance to clear his name.

The difficulties and challenges of being a priest in a working community are thus laid before us at the outset. Only later will we gradually discover another, complicating factor to A Perfectly Good Man. Barnaby’s deeply troubled private life.


We both spend much of our time in Cornwall and Patrick Gale, who lives on a farm near Land’s End, has a wonderful grasp and perception of rural life on the peninsula. It is interesting that he has chosen a priest as his central character in this story – Gale spent his early childhood at Wandsworth Prison, where his father was Governor, and grew up in the cathedral city of Winchester. Barnaby is a muscular yet aesthetic figure and Gale’s roots may have shaped this fascinating, complex character.

On the face of it Barnaby has a happy life, but as his story unwinds we learn the heartache and despair that have been his companions for as long as he can remember. The tale is told in vaulting leaps back and forward in time; young Barnaby; old Barnaby; middle-aged Barnaby.

Middle-aged Barnaby and his wife Dot have a sexless marriage and an adopted son, who is a total nightmare. As a teenage junkie he daubs obscene graffiti about Jesus in scarlet paint on the parish church. Barnaby and Dot patiently whitewash it out and when they have walked home by moonlight, they make love for the first time either can remember. It is a deeply affecting chapter.

A parishioner called Modest is Barnaby’s principle curse – a self-loathing ex-teacher and sex offender who has a weird obsession with the priest. He scuttles like a cockroach through the story.

A Perfectly Good Man is a deeply intelligent, humane examination of the meaning of goodness. It will stay with you like a prayer – profound, simple, and timeless. Gale is one of our foremost yet most accessible writers. This book is a joy.

Reviews & Comments

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  • Wonderful book, beautifully written, with twists and turns all the way through. Thoroughly enjoyed :-)


  • This is the fifth of the Summer selection I have read and it is the outstanding novel so far; in a different class from the others I would say. The story of Barnaby is one that spans decades in both time and in a shifting moral compass. We trust and empathise, given the immense skill and graceful,compelling prose of Patrick Gale but what we thought was true and good initially does not necessarily pertain until the end of this exemplary novel as it moves back and forth through the years gradually revealing a shocking and heart rending set of secrets. A character as real as Barnaby would be sufficient in a lesser novel but here we explore the interwoven lives of Dot, Modest and a difficult son. Sometimes, it is almost painful to read on and discover more but this is great literature and Barnaby holds on to us in the way that a Jude the Obscure or a Frederick Moreau do. Beginning with the 'assisted suicide' of Lenny, the reader feels challenged from the start: 'What would you do?' But as much as it might fit a morality tale or 'State of England' or 'Decline of Faith' genre, at its heart, this is the story of a man, a good man, told exceptionally well.


  • Really loved this book, the characters are so well written and the story is good

    Karen L S

  • Wow. What a book. I wasn't looking forward to this as I had not enjoyed Notes on an Exhibition. This was something special though. A beautiful and compelling read. Draws you in and then drip feeds you with information. Very well written.


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