Take Nothing With You is a heart-warming story about a middle-aged man who has just had surgery for cancer. He is alone in a lead-lined room where he must stay in isolation for two days after having radioactive iodine treatment.
Eustace is gay and has recently fallen in love with a soldier actively deployed in Afghanistan who he met on the Internet. They have arranged to meet soon for the first time. He regrets not telling him about the cancer.
He had to leave all his belongings outside to avoid contamination. All he has to amuse himself is a tiny MP3 player with earphones filled with cello music, a present from his close friend Naomi. To relieve his boredom he uses the time to reflect on his past life over the last fifty years.
His was an unusual childhood. He was an only child who lived in an old people’s home managed by his parents who are unhappily married.
They could not bring themselves to ask him if he was gay although they may well have guessed. His mother, a very complicated lady, did not want him to play the harp as that was only for women. Her homophobia leads her to put Eustice in an excruciatingly difficult situation later on.
The turning point in his life is when he is allowed to take cello lessons with the bohemian and highly talented cello teacher Carla Gold. She inspires a great love of music in him. Carla shares her home with two middle-aged men who are the first gay couple he has ever met. Eustice is intrigued.
He throws himself wholeheartedly into his music and is so seduced by its transformative power that he longs to become a cellist for a living.
At school, he is an oddball who doesn’t like sport and is not interested in his studies, except maths. But his newfound talent boosts his confidence so he is no longer so bothered by teachers who sneer and boys who tease him at school. Eustice keeps quiet about being gay but has some fumbling sexual experiences with other like-minded boys.
Later, at a Comprehensive school, he is surprised to find that some of the girls like the fact that he is different and want to hang out with him.
At a holiday course in the Scottish border, he further hones his talents. Here a big decision will be made about his future life.
Gale describes what this holiday course is like in great detail, the tutoring, the companionship of other young musicians and competing with them.
His descriptions of how the cello is played are so vivid you can almost imagine you are there and hear the music. So it did not come as a surprise to discover that Gale himself was once a talented young cello player who had attended such a camp.
And his obviously deep understanding of the trials and tribulations of being a gay teenager in the in the seventies is surely based on Gale’s personal experience although it is not an autobiography.
There are the lives of minor characters who add interest to the story, as well as the surprising path his unpredictable mother chooses to follow. But at the centre of it all is Eustace’s coming of age story, about his teenage emotions, about passion and love, but also about rejection and sadness. Gale writes it with a light touch.
It is a very human, engaging and bittersweet story. I really enjoyed it.
Take Nothing With You is by Patrick Gale. Publisher Hachette New Zealand. RRP $37.99
Reviews by Lyn Potter
Parent and grandparent, Avid traveler, writer & passionate home cook