Review: A Son Called Gabriel by Damian McNicholl

Set in the hills of Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, the book is told from the point of view of Gabriel Harkin, the eldest of four children in a working-class family, who struggles through a loving yet often brutal childhood.  It’s a turbulent time in Ulster, and, in the staunchly Catholic community to which Gabriel belongs, the strict code for belief and behaviour is clear.  As Gabriel begins to suspect that he is not like other boys, he tries desperately to lock away his feelings, and his fears.  But secrets have a way of being discovered, and Gabriel learns that his might not be the only one in the Harkin family.

Review by Erastes

This book struck a lot of chords for me, and I found myself reading it in one session because I simply couldn’t put it down.  Being raised myself by a Catholic mother with the same values and standards as Gabriel’s mother–don’t shame the family, don’t show yourself up, don’t give in to bullies, always look nice, study hard, do better–I could empathize with everything in this story.

Gideon is a normal little boy–until he starts to worry that he isn’t.  He’s about six at the start of the book and going to school.  Or at least, he decides he’s not going to school because he’s being bullied.

The choice was school or the big stick and seemed easy to make.  My younger sister Caroline and any boy in the whole of Ireland would choose school, but I knew I was right in refusing to go.

No, he’s not the most self-aware boy in Ireland, he’s just not into sports.  However that’s enough of a reason for Henry Lynch to pick on Gabriel and when pushed to the point of fighting, and then backing down he realises that he’s never going to be able to fight–which makes matters worse.  There are gradual hints as he gets older that he’s not like the other boys in his immediate circle which he doesn’t understand.

In this respect I was reminded of William Golding’s The Inheritors, or more recently, Terry Pratchett’s Nation where someone tries to understand a way of life that in many ways makes no sense at all.  Gabriel’s so desperate to fit in; but there are things that even he’s not aware of that make him stand out.

Don’t go thinking that this is a bleak and tragic story.  It could easily have gone that way, but there’s a bubbling exuberance that buoys it up, and a streak of black humour running through it which saves it from irremediable emo.

As an example, Lynch picks on Gabriel at the funfair. Gabriel is wearing purple jeans, jeans he begged his mother to buy him, and of course, they are unlike anyone else’s jeans.  Gabriel is stripped by the bullies and saved by the girls–who he plays with at school.  A dreadful situation but the sting is taken out of it when his cousin remarks that she’s seen her brother’s thing a hundred times and Gabriel’s is no different.

The book is full of childhood smut, like this.  Children experiment with sex, and these children are no different, so if you are averse to children playing doctors and nurses (in one case quite delightfully with Gabriel and his male cousin) then this isn’t the book for you.  But it’s not presented in any titilaating way–simply as a fact of life, because that’s what children do.  They learn “bad words” and keep them from their parents because they know they shouldn’t know them.

In this respect is a lovely nostalgic read, children certainly being more innocent than they are today.

As would be expected in the time and place, religion plays a strong part in the book, and Gabriel is buffeted between the Church and his family when he learns the confusing facts of how to deal with confession.  “Tell the priest the truth.”  “Don’t you dare tell the priest anything about this family.” and other impossible matters.  He’s often punished for telling the truth, when it’s discovered that he tells the truth about a lie he told earlier.

When Gabriel really begins to realise what might be “wrong” with him, that’s when the tone of the story changes and he struggles with his possible homosexuality with all of his might.  The book could have spiralled into despair at this point, but it’s Gabriel’s tenacity and–even more importantly, the strength and solidity of his family that prevent this.

His family are every piece as important in this, and I came to know and love (and dislike!) all of them.  Anyone with a largish family will be able to take something away from this, the nice grannie, the not so nice grannie, the embarrassing aunt, the brother no-one talks about… and so on.

I don’t know if the author is planning a series of books about Gabriel, but I hope so.  The book ends with him just about to leave Ireland for London, and it seems perfectly set for a sequel.  I’ll certainly be getting it if so.

I think many people will find something to take away in this book–especially if they were raised in the 1960s and 70s.  As a debut novel, it’s a terrific read, and anyone with an interest in this era will find it absorbing – and I’m sure, as unputdownable as I did.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

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3 Responses

  1. Ooh, sounds good! And just when I was saying I really fancied something set in Ireland :)

  2. Oh that sounds lovely. And with my family…. well…!

  3. Sounds terrific! I’ll have a look at it.

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