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on 21 June 2004
A Son called Gabriel begins in nineteen sixty-four when Gabriel is in 2nd grade. The boy lives in the small town of Knockburn in Northern Island, a catholic stronghold in a troubled region, where daily life is shaped by two over riding forces: the church and hatred of Protestants. Damian McNicholl has written a lively and spirited story of one boy's journey through adolescence - a boy who is "sensitive" and "different" without really knowing the reasons why. As Gabriel struggles to come to terms with his sexuality throughout a loving, but often brutal childhood, a family mystery is steadily revealed involving his Uncle Brendan, who years ago, surreptitiously joined the priesthood.
Written as a series of vignettes, each chapter paints a portrait of Gabriel's troubled life. Gabriel is taunted and teased by schoolyard bullies, he plays in the "muck" with the senior girls rather than playing football with the boys, he brushes the hair of his sister's dolls, and he gets his first look at a dirty magazine. Later in the story, we witness his anxious ridden preparations for his O level examinations, and his guilty shame about his dalliances with other boys. Aware of his sensitivity at a young age, Gabriel struggles to please his devout Catholic mother, and working class father, while dealing with over-zealous aunties, and competitive cousins.
When older, Gabriel is sent to Saint Malachy, and Irish Catholic School for boys - where boys are expected to be tough, assertive, and where any feminine qualities are an inexcusable sign of weakness. This coincides with Gabriel's teenage years, and his inevitable attraction to men. His guilt-ridden angst becomes more intense, and McNicholl does a great job of conveying the psyche of a tortured, tormented, and conflicted boy. When Gabriel commits the "abomination" - furtive couplings and fumbling with schoolmates - he loathes himself afterwards because he's actually enjoyed it. Torn between his rigid catholic upbringing, and his desire to physically and emotionally be with boys, Gabriel spends many a day churning over his feelings, remaining frustrated and confused. He's wracked with denial, and has days "when doubt as dark as winter nights falls upon his shoulders," he feasts on doubt and intelligence, "and it fills him with an angst, that it had all been a fluke."
McNicholl is a blunt, gutsy writer, with a gift for rough humour. He lovingly peoples his Irish landscape of farms and homes with oddballs, eccentrics, and bawdy children. And Gabriel's observations and digressions on his friends and family are lively and vivid, which makes for incredibly funny and heartfelt reading. The action is constantly seen through Gabriel's eyes, and his insights into the sometimes-confusing adult world around him spark the novel. At times, there are so many aunts, uncles, cousins, and schoolmates, that it's hard for the reader to keep track of them all, and without a focused storyline, the narrative does tend to wander. Some readers may also find that the deep secret revealed at the end of the book is a little contrived, because it takes the focus away from the issue of Gabriel's acceptance of his homosexuality. The dreaded secret doesn't actually accomplish much in terms of closure or character development. But the dry-eyed, earnest and sincere exchanges throughout the story do give the novel an honesty and credibility that makes A Son Called Gabriel an artfully defiant work of fiction. Mike Leonard June 04.
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on 20 November 2007
Readers who enjoy the coming-of-age genre will find some satisfaction in following Gabriel's development from six to eighteen, but this is not a great novel. Inevitably, given the similarities of theme, comparisons can be drawn between this and Mark Behr's "Embrace", but McNicholl's work fails this test on several counts.
The background of religious intolerance does anchor the narrative in time to some extent, but there is little sense of place because Gabriel is insufficiently aware of his surroundings. In addition, the British reader is frequently jolted out of any sense of being in Northern Ireland by American words and spellings.
Minor characters are deftly sketched, but lack depth. Gabriel's own character is inconsistent, quite apart from his sexual exploration: from being passive and a prey for bullies, he suddenly becomes strong and assertive; his academic failures turn miraculously into success.
The plot, if one can be said to exist, centres on his quest for sexual identity, but here again, McNicholl fails his reader, for there is neither a resolution of Gabriel's intense inner conflict nor any genuine climax. One suspects that the discovery of his family background was inserted to provide this climax, but this discovery sheds more light on the mysterious Uncle Brendan than it does on Gabriel's own problems.
The safisfaction which a reader expects on reaching the end of a story is lacking here because at eighteen, Gabriel is still in denial of the truth about himself, which makes the whispered hint of a male friendship at university virtually ineffectual, while it has also been made abundantly clear that he is unlikely to find happiness in a heterosexual relationship. The hint of a new beginning which is signalled in the closing lines therefore seems forlorn, since, as far as we can see, Gsabriel's future relationships are likely to end in frustration, as did those of his youth.
I think McNicholl would have done better to adopt a less equivocal attitude towards sexual orientation, for his cautious balancing act produces neither great art nor great entertainment.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 August 2007
Set in Northern Ireland in the mid 1960s A Son Called Gabriel tells the story of a young Catholic boy's coming if age. Gabriel, a sensitive boy, is different from the rest of his working class family and his peers. He is bullied at school, and otherwise taken advantage of. The story tells of his confused feelings with girls and boys; his abortive attempts with girls; and his secret gropings with other boys which bringing him temporary pleasure but leave him guilt ridden. He has a champion, his uncle Father Brendan, a man who is surrounded by a certain mystery, the details of which we eventually learn.
A Son Called Gabriel is a tender and moving story, occasionally funny, and well worth reading.
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on 14 October 2008
An enchanting debut from an Irish writer about growing pains of a homosexual boy in a homophobic period. The character's personality is slowly and cleverly revealed, and by the end you feel very strongly for him (whether like or dislike is up to the individual reader. I liked him). Occasionally, the plot feels slightly Coronation-Street in it's emotional complexity (or lack thereof); e.g. there are family discoveries to be made.

On the whole though, a well shaped book that keeps you hooked til the end. Looking forward to more, Mr McN!
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on 16 August 2011
This isn't a bad tale by any stretch of the imagination - it plunges the outsider into its world very effectively, albeit without a hugely satisfying arc or resolution, but still. As a period piece and an insight into a confused young man's mind, it definitely works.

However - and I hate to play the proofreader nerd here, but sometimes it's necessary - someone needs to give the typesetters/printers of this edition a darned good kick. It's riddled with flaws thoughout: words run into each other when they shouldn't; paragraphs of speech are inexplicably split in the middle; and, worst of all, some genius has apparently done a global replace on the capital "A" for some reason known only to himself, leaving us readers to cope with nonsense such as "a levels" and entire sentences that begin with a lower-case "a".

I know that kind of thing won't bother some people, but for me it's shoddy workmanship, pure and simple, and not something I'm happy to have paid good money for. (Morever, if I were the author, I'd be furious at anyone who let something so lax go out under my name.) This might, of course, be peculiar to this specific paperback edition - so here's hoping it's resolved elsewhere.
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on 4 August 2014
This was a lively book which captured the problems of growing up gay and catholic in seventies Ireland. Gabriel was utterly convincing and the way he tried to deal with his sinful thoughts was touching and seemed realistic to me.
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on 26 August 2016
Funny,witty and written with excruciating detail at times. I really enjoyed the book and it's subject matter so why only 3 stars? The proof reading is appalling with so many misspellings and grammatical errors I felt like chucking it into the fire! The only thing stopping me was the fact we don't have an open fire! I persevered however and was pleased I did. I would happily read about what happened next in Gabrielle's life should the author feel inclined to write the next chapter.
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VINE VOICEon 5 February 2009
It would be easy to be put off reading this work by the use of Northern Irish dialect - accurately - throughout. This is in fact one of its strengths. Its use emphasises the sense of difference, of potential rejection, felt by Gabriel as his years advance and his awareness of that difference grows. Yet that difference, by the values of his society, is one not to be mentioned, even hinted at. Yet how to conceal it? These were, and in places still are, the values of that society, both at home and abroad. They are defied at one's peril. A valuable comparison could be made with 'At Swim Two Boys', a southern Irish equivalent, but of a different period.
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