Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on A Son Called Gabriel.
Irish literature is often stereotyped as downbeat, dense and depressing. But Damian McNichollís A Son Called Gabriel shows us that there is a reason for that perception. The novel, set in Northern Ireland during the 1960s and 1970s, focuses on Gabriel Harkin, the oldest in a working-class family. Gabriel has the typical childhood and teenage problems Ė fighting off bullies, trying to keep his head above water in school, earning his fatherís respect.
His drive to be a good Catholic boy and a good son is complicated by several things, however. Not the least of those is his dawning realization that he might be gay, which, as a devout Catholic, heís been taught to regard as a sin. Thereís also his complicated family situation, particularly with concern to his Uncle Brendan, a priest struggling with his place in the world.
The story follows Gabriel as he, too, tries to figure out how he fits into the world around him. McNicholl is a fine storyteller and, in Gabriel, he has created a convincing, complicated and likable main character. But in the end, Gabrielís many tragedies (which include, but are not limited to, the drowning death of his childhood bully, sexual abuse, the brief arrest of his father, and the realization that the pet lambs his grandmother lets him have are soon recycled into food), donít seem to add up to much. True, thereís a doozy of a revelation at the end (which I wonít reveal), but we never really figure out what this means in Gabrielís life. The book doesnít really resolve much.
True, itís refreshing that McNicholl doesnít feel the need to compromise his story by wrapping it up in a neat package, but it seems a bit formless. After the revelation at the end, thereís little resolution, and almost none (or, at least, an unsatisfying one) involving the storyís other major plot thread. The whole thing seems rather anticlimactic.
But that doesnít mean A Son Called Gabriel is without merit. McNicholl delves into the sad, but not entirely joyless, lives of his characters in such a way that we cringe as Gabriel suffers, share his frustration and hope that, eventually, heíll find his way as a whole and happy human being.