The Gamal, by Ciarán Collins
Outstanding debut tells tragicomic tale of star-crossed lovers in fair Ballyronan
Sinéad and James are childhood sweethearts. Friends from early days in primary school in Ballyronan, a fictional village in Cork, they are deeply in love and inseparable by the time they do the Leaving. James belongs to an old Protestant family and lives in the ancestral pile, Kent Castle. Sinéad’s family is Catholic, her father is an alcoholic and her mother is moody and unreliable.
Charlie, who narrates the novel, is a close friend, and all three are passionate about music and song. Sinéad, a sparkling beauty, and James dream of being professional singers. Charlie, who is probably also in love with Sinéad, plans to accompany them as a backstage handyman on their journey to stardom. They protect him from the bullying of their mates in Ballyronan, the nastiness that eventually sets the wheels of the plot racing and plunges the high comedy of the novel into deep tragedy.
The novel begins when the characters are four or five, and follows their lives until they are about 18. James and Sinéad are preparing to set off to Dublin, to Trinity College and the National College of Art and Design, respectively, when the first major crisis occurs. Sinéad is obliged to stay at home in Ballyronan, while James takes up his college place. From here on, a dramatic sequence of events leads to the novel’s mildly ambiguous and not unpredictable conclusion. The comparison with Romeo and Juliet on the blurb more or less gives it away in general terms from the start. But it’s all in the details, which, in this novel, are highly original, complex and very moving.
Patrick Dineen, in his Gaelic dictionary, translates “gamal” as “a stupid-looking fellow”, and the borrowed word apparently survives in Cork English (richly represented in this book). The boy narrator crops up frequently in contemporary fiction: Emma Donoghue’s Room was narrated by a five-year-old and Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by a 10-year-old boy.
Intellectually or emotionally challenged boys are particularly popular: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-T ime is told by an autistic 15-year-old, while Pat McCabe’s darkly hilarious Butcher Boy is mentally unstable. Like his literary brothers (these narrators are hardly ever female), Charlie, the Gamal, is not the full shilling, but is a savant, capable of extraordinary insight, powers of observation and indeed intellectual ability, when required. He is also compassionate and loving, and, of course, funny, possibly the main attraction of this sort of voice for authors (and readers: books of this kind are often superbly successful, as this one should become).
The Gamal is very, very funny. His quirky voice and sharp observations alone make the book well worth reading. He is writing it at the instigation of Dr Quinn, his counsellor or psychologist, and is a reluctant and self-reflective narrator. On the first page, he warns: “Don’t be expecting any big flowery longwinded poetic picturesque horseshit passages in this book explaining the look of something. If I have to go into that much detail I’ll take a photograph or draw a picture. This is for people like myself who hate reading.”
Sure enough, the early chapters of the book are generously sprinkled with home-made photographs and childish drawings, and the novel employs other standard postmodern metafictional devices: dictionary entries, and comments by the narrator on the progress of his writing are inserted frequently, as in: “That’s eight hundred and sixty-two words. That’s me done for today.”
Jane Smiley, commenting on the problem of the postmodern novel (mainly that “the ordinary reader” doesn’t like it much) writes in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel : “An intriguing concept will carry you a long way, but not all the way.” Quotations from a dictionary were very funny and clever when Flann O’Brien used them in 1939, but at this stage the joke has worn a bit thin, like many of the devices of literary modernism. The Gamal seems to acknowledge this, even within its covers. As the plot thickens, the tricky devices become less frequent and almost fade away.
The first half of the novel is introductory and probably too long. In spite of the engaging voice of the narrator, and the high comedy of his brilliantly astute observations on life in the small town of Ballyronan, and especially on school life, the book risks running out of steam. For the second half, the chain of dramatic events, engendered by envy, sexual jealousy and competitiveness among teenagers, ensures the story gathers momentum.
The novel provides deep insight into the complexity of the phenomena we dump too easily into the catch-all term “bullying”. The author, who is a teacher, understands very well the messy stewpot of teenage emotions, and how kindergarten rivalries can escalate into adult criminality of the worst kind. The child is indeed father of the man in the crucible of a small community where everyone remembers the stupid things you did in Senior Infants. And what your ancestors did during the Famine. (However, proffering folk memories as a contributing motive for the bullying I found unconvincing. Would today’s teenagers know or care about Ireland’s ancient wrongs? If so, west Cork must be a weirder place than it’s possible for a south Dubliner to imagine.)
Minor quibbles aside, this is one of the most imaginative and entertaining novels to be written in Ireland recently. It is a complex tragicomedy, portraying the life of young people in an Irish parish in a highly original way, and dealing with the major teenage issues of the moment – bullying, depression, suicide – with compassion and intelligence. There is a lot of good writing from Co Cork and this is one of the best examples I have come across. The Gamal is an outstanding debut for Ciarán Collins.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is a writer, and teaches in the creative-writing MA course in University College Dublin. Her latest books are Dordán (Cois Life), a novel for teenagers, and The Shelter of Neighbours (Blackstaff), a collection of short stories.