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"That's how I was - a guilt-edged cloud of darkness"
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.