I wasn’t sure about this book going into it. One of the best books I’ve read this year was The Absolutist by John Boyne, which is the story of a young gay man coming of age written by an Irish author; and one of my all time favorite books is At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill, which is the story of a young gay man coming of age written by an Irish author.
Overall I was completely underwhelmed until the last 15-20 pages of the book. I think McNicholl did a great job portraying working class Northern Ireland and interlacing just enough of the political landscape to keep the focus on the main character and not the conflict, but I just couldn’t get into it. I didn’t feel like Gabriel was a sympathetic character and I just kept wanting to tell him to shut up. I honestly kept thinking, good grief I hope I wasn’t that annoying when I was his age (even though I’m sure I was more-so).
There were two reasons I didn’t enjoy the novel as much as I thought I would. The first is that the religious turmoil wasn’t as convincing as it could have been. It was right at the cusp and maybe it went to far, but there was something about it that just sort of irked me. In addition, the second reason I didn’t like the book as well as I thought I would was the passage of time. I felt like there were bits and pieces missing. Part one was only about a third of the book and part two was the rest and as I read part two, I felt that time just sort of dropped by without there being any sort of reason other than Gabriel growing up and the fact that I was supposed to assume that years were passing because of the various examinations he took and failed/passed.
(CAUTION there are spoilers in this paragraph.) As I said, the only saving grace was the last 15-20 pages. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been so busy with my new job or distracted by life at the moment and just not reading as carefully or thoroughly as usual, but I was gobsmacked by the twist at the end. I guess it wasn’t completely shocking, but I assumed the similarity between Gabriel and Brendan were their sexuality, not what was revealed! I mean WHOA!
The Literary Others Synthesis
There were two quotes which stood out for me in this novel specifically about sexuality and Gabriel’s journey to come to terms (or not) with his homosexuality. I thought they provided amazing insight into the internal dialogue many LGBT individuals go through and many who are afraid, or unable, to come to terms with it.
“Affliction stalked me still. It would not be denied. I could never let down my guard. A fresh terror, a terror that I might not win this war, loomed in my consciousness.” (279)
This one struck me because of the comparison to a war. Now McNicholls didn’t draw a comparison of Gabriel’s developing sexuality and his internal struggle to the struggle between the Catholics and Protestants, but I’m not sure he should have. In almost leaving both in the background for most of the novel he made them less heavy-handed, but it would’ve been a cool idea – especially with the quote above.
In addition to this, I found the following quote to be incredibly apt as well.
“I became paranoid of anything related to homosexuality. If I overheard anyone talk disparagingly about homosexuals at school, I believed they were doing so because they thought I was a queer and knew I was listening to them. And homosexuality confronted me from every corner. Not even my own home was spared. Newspapers and magazines spilled scandals about the acts of homosexuals.” (307)
It’s the entire idea that like find like. Although Gabriel wasn’t searching for LGBT related materials, as soon as he started questioning his own sexuality he rapidly realized how much there was already out there being discussed. Although it wasn’t being discussed in a positive light, it was being discussed. It’s funny how much awareness just being introduced to an idea or a concept can bring. All of a sudden you start picking up on the fact that it’s been everywhere the entire time, but you just weren’t aware or acknowledging its existence.
Recommendation: Although I enjoyed it I would probably pass. There is much richer Irish fiction and much richer Irish LGBT fiction out there. This one does have a special place because it is specifically Northern Ireland during the time of the IRA, but overall it was more of a meh. The twist was great, but I was left wanting and not in a good way at the end of the novel. I almost wish McNicholl hadn’t written this as his first novel – maybe if he’d cut his teeth on a few other novels and then went back to this it would’ve had more of a profound impact on me.
Opening Line: “The choice was school or the big stick and seemed easy to make.”
Closing Line: “I was leaving for a new beginning.” (Whited out.)