Ciarán Collins’ debut novel, The Gamal, won the 2013 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. It’s one of the most-impressive debut novels in years.
The Gamal is narrated by a young man, Charlie, who tells us from the off that we won’t like him. He’s blunt, undiplomatic, and prefers to use photographs rather than describe places. He’s writing the book unwillingly, as an account of a tragedy that occurred some years previously, at the behest of his psychiatrist, a man of whom he doesn’t think very highly. Charlie is known as the gamal, a short form of Gamalóg, an Irish word for a simpleton, so we embark on the book understanding that Charlie is regarded as somewhat mentally deficient by his community. He’s also undergoing treatment for some form of post-traumatic-stress-disorder, presumably as the result of the tragedy looming in the recent past.
He gradually unfolds a story of growing up in a small rural village in Co. Cork with his two best friends, Sinéad and James, who fell in love at first sight and were inseparable all their lives. Obsessed by music, Sinéad was a wonderful singer and James a talented multi-instrumentalist, they planned on a career in music with the certainly only teenagers can muster, although Charlie now has the distance to admit that most of their songs were rubbish. Despite his odd ways, Charlie is their constant companion and confidant.
James is a typical teenager, and significant better at football than his peers. He carries the local club team on his back to county finals. Although Charlie doesn’t play football, he fetches and carries gear for the team, so he’s at every practice and every post-match celebration in the pub. Being perceived as a bit slow is both a blessing and a curse for Charlie, as everyone in the village accepts him as he is and include him at arms’ length — he’s sitting among the circle of every conversation in the pub, but is rarely asked for his own opinion — but nobody except Sinéad and James treat him as a normal person with his own ideas and thoughts. This felt completely real, as the Ireland I grew up in was very inclusive of the mentally or physically challenged. There were few resources or special schools, so everyone joined in the life of the community as best they could.
James attracts the enmity of the other boys in the village in subtle ways. They’re jealous of his ability on the football field. He’s also going out with Sinéad, who is a very attractive girl. In a small town, such differences can be celebrated one minute, and cause a fight the next. As resentment grows, boys remember that James’s family is protestant, while the rest of the school is catholic, so his difference becomes more strongly felt, more resented as time passes. The other boys look to take James down a peg or two to assuage their own ego. They settle on Sinéad as their target.
Collins uses Charlie’s unreliable narration to keep us in suspense as to the exact nature of the inevitable tragedy for a long time. We understand early on that there was a court case, and that Charlie is writing his account of events for his psychiatrist, possibly in connection with his testimony. However, it’s not clear exactly who was the accused and who the victim. There are plenty of unsavory characters and Charlie’s personality and apparent vulnerability also make us wonder if he may have done something terrible out of misguided loyalty or simple misunderstanding. Finally, Collins reveals the key events through Charlie’s eyes, but we can’t help suspecting that things didn’t quite occur as he claims. That the novel is clearly his official version of events, and the primary audience is clearly judgmental suggests that Charlie is sanitizing some parts of the story, but his digressions and off-the-cuff reminiscences seem to support an alternate reading of events at odds with the apparent court decision. In this respect, the book is a triumph of unreliable narration, and leaves us with as many questions at the end than we had at the beginning.
In terms of voice, Charlie is quite a sympathetic creation despite his initial declaration that he’s unlikeable. We sense that Charlie is far more clear-sighted and intelligent than he lets on, but he finds it easier to live with the low expectations everyone has of him and hides his basic intelligence from all but his best friends. He understands that his peers tolerate him as he presents no threat to their place in the status quo. However, he clearly has genuine emotional and attention-deficit problems, which motivate his episodic and allusive narrative style. These digressions are the making of the book, as we have to read as much into how he tells the story as what he reveals in any chapter.
The Gamal has a lot to say about enmity in small towns, the effects of subtle but telling differences, and how people can read volumes into the smallest thing. Collins clearly knowns the currents of teenage life very well, and renders the pulse of this small community in exquisite detail. It’s as if you’re really in the pub with these characters, and stumbling home along ill-lit lanes afire with the possibility of youth.
The nature of the story and the complexity of the plot make this a tricky novel to review without giving away important information. A tragedy occurs, and the tragedy is recalled years later by someone emotionally scarred by events. That sounds a very elementary and not-uncommon plot device, but Ciarán Collin’s skill in the slow reveal, use of ambiguous information, and excellently evasive narrative voice elevates the plot to an absolute master-class in how character drives a book. It’s astonishing that this is a debut novel.
Treat yourself to the US edition of The Gamal…
Readers in the UK can order The Gamal here…
Irish readers can order The Gamal from Galway’s finest, Kennys.ie… (free delivery worldwide)
Learn more about Ciarán Collins on his website…
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