Born as raised in England as the eldest son of a wealthy businessman, Harry lives a relatively idle life. Shy and with a stammer that embarrasses him, he enters into a happy but platonic marriage. When he enters into an illicit, passionate affair, he starts to discover more about himself and his sexuality.
When he’s inevitably discovered, he’s forced to leave his family behind under the threat of scandal and imprisonment. Harry emigrates to Canada, where he’s allocated a remote homestead in a place called Winter. It’s a harsh environment, and to succeed in his new life Harry has to learn a whole new set of skills – building a home from scratch and clearing his land for farming.
On his travels he meets Troels, a dangerous and sadistic man who makes a living from exploiting the many homesteaders that fail in their efforts to start afresh in the Canadian prairies. His relationship with Troels is dark, twisted and unsettling, and his negative influence pervades the whole book, even after Harry forms a new bond with his neighbour, Paul, and his sister, Petra. Eventually, this troubled relationship forces Harry to make a terrible decision.
Harry at the beginning of the novel is shy, withdrawn and has no real purpose in life. He drifts aimlessly, whiling his days away as best he can. His marriage and its breakdown, plus the irrevocable spilt with the only family he has, shakes him to the core – but it also wipes the slate clean in a sense. After his enforced new start in Canada, he discovers the value of working for himself, a sense of achievement and real love and friendship for the first time.
The descriptions of the mental institutions and attitudes to ‘therapy’ at the time were shocking, and it’s hard to believe that anyone could believe these treatments could actually produce any real results. Even when Harry moves to the more liberal Bethel Sanatorium, it’s clear that approaches towards treating mental health are still very much in the experimentation phase. Similarly, the attitudes towards the Cree tribes and their treatment by white settlers were hard to read about, and the devastating effect of white interference in their culture is demonstrated in the plight of Harry’s fellow patient, Ursula.
The book was also a real eye-opener into how the idea of propriety and the rules of respectable society governed people’s lives in Edwardian England. Reading this with a modern perspective, it’s hard to comprehend Jack’s decision to shun his only brother rather than risk associating his family with disrepute.
I found it really interesting that Gale drew on aspects of his own family history to inspire the events in the novel. Although the book is fictional, the struggles that people faced for having feelings that Edwardian society viewed as ‘unnatural’ were very real – and it makes for a fascinating read.