Click here to read reviewer Amanda Cuda's take on A Son Called Gabriel.
In a painful coming-of-age saga, young Gabriel Harkin grows from childhood to adolescence in 1960s Ireland, restricted by a religion that condemns the very homosexuality he is confronting. Gabriel realizes what is expected of him as a male and strives to deliver, but is constantly undermined by his own natural inclinations, forced into the mold of his peers, endlessly tortured by bullies who prey on his vulnerability.
An easy target, Gabriel is confused by the mixed messages of his religion and the prurient interest of other boys who seek such innocence, an artistic temperament and lack of athletic skill hindering acceptance by the St. Malachy’s students. As the oldest of four children, Gabriel fights for acknowledgment from a father who favors the younger and more physical James, taunting his older son about his oversensitivity, a negative quality in this father’s eyes.
Caught in a confusing mix of emotions, with no guidance but the authoritative dogma of the Catholic religion, Gabriel’s isolation is complete: “The Church is infallible and don’t you ever forget it.” He bears the burden of a sexual preference that is increasingly real and unacceptable, but simply cannot be like the others boys. Intuiting this flaw, the boys seize on any excuse to taunt their classmate.
In the midst of a raucous Irish-Catholic, actively pro-IRA family, Gabriel is surrounded by siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandmothers, all of whom have something to say about his behavior and future, but there is really no one to address Gabriel’s particular dilemma and he is left to his own resources and tortured imagination.
No easy place for a sexually ambiguous boy to survive, Ireland is awash in sports fanaticism and passion for the IRA. Uncle Brendan, a missionary priest in Africa, is held up as a model for Gabriel and shows confidence in the boy’s ability when he visits. But there is a family secret that the boy cannot unravel, since the adults refuse to talk about it.
Gabriel’s mother is constantly “sorting him out,” her way of taking no action, while his father belittles and questions his son’s masculinity. His rite-of-passage into adolescence riddled with anxiety, Gabriel does his best to pass what he thinks of as God’s “test”, terrified that some word or behavior will give him away. He is flawed and doesn’t know how to fix it, but confession is out of the question; Gabriel knows that what he wants is sinful, an abomination. Although he is angry at God for giving him this test, Gabriel understands that he will never turn away from God, for then he would be forever alone.
McNicholl perfectly renders Gabriel’s confusion, denial, anger and eventual acceptance of a judgmental world in which he doesn’t fit. Gradually, Gabriel imagines a different life for himself in another place. The geography of his past forever altered, Gabriel looks to the freedom of anonymity and an opportunity to start over.