Gabriel Harkin is growing up in the 1960s and '70s in a working-class Catholic family. Northern Ireland at the time is riven by political and religious differences, and the Troubles form a backdrop to Gabriel's childhood and adolescence. But the more immediate cause of Gabriel's unhappiness during these years is his homosexuality. Bullied for his effeminacy, tormented by guilt when he gives way to what the Church tells him are sinful urges, Gabriel worries too that he is a disappointment to his father, who appears to favor Gabriel's athletic and mechanically-inclined brother James. Gabriel cannot confess his desires, not even to his beloved uncle, Father Brendan, but he does come to realize that his sexual proclivity is not the only secret being harbored in the Harkin family: some disgrace which his parents refuse to discuss evidently lies behind Brendan's entrance into the priesthood.
Damian McNicholl's A Son Called Gabriel is written in the first person and reads like a memoir. As such it will inevitably be compared to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. Remarkably, McNicholl's novel does not suffer from the comparison. It is so well written, and the author's portrayal of Gabriel is so vivid, that readers will be hard-pressed to remember they're holding a piece of fiction in their hands. A Son Called Gabriel creates a fully realistic community--Gabriel's parents and siblings and extended family of aunts and uncles and grandparents, the boys who taunt or befriend him at school--and a likable main character with whom readers cannot but sympathize as they watch him grow to manhood. It is a perfect novel. And, quiet story though it is, the book packs a wallop in its final pages when the secret of Brendan's retreat into the clergy is finally revealed.
About the reviewer: Debra Hamel is the author of TRYING NEAIRA (Yale University Press, 2003), the true story of an ancient Greek prostitute whose seamy past was put on display during her trial in the fourth century B.C.
Debra Hamel Blog: www.the-deblog.com
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