A Son Called Gabriel is the story of a Catholic boy in Northern Ireland struggling to discover his sexual orientation. He is at times very confused by his feelings and really tries to obey the rules that his parents and the church prescribe, but his schoolmates, cousins, and neighbors tempt him into many sensual experiences. An aunt warns his parents very early in the story that he might be “fey” and urges that he be required to go out for sports and spend less time playing with the girls at recess. His father wants him to show more interest in trucks and football, while his mother wants him to study harder and be like his uncle.
Gabriel’s uncle Brendan is also struggling. He obeyed the wishes of his parents that he become a priest, but much against his mother’s wishes, he went to Kenya to teach in a mission school before Gabriel was born. When he comes back to visit the family, he is questioning his vocation. He has tried to please the family, be the son to take holy orders (every Catholic family was supposed to raise one priest), but he has suffered a nervous breakdown.
Damian McNicholl has filled his novel with well-rounded characters. The parents hate the Protestants and the English, but they are very decent people who deal fairly with individuals from any faith. All the family worries about upsetting Gabriel’s grandmother with any bad news, but she actually is a fairly tolerant person who accepts the family disappointments well. The bully who makes walking to school difficult for Gabriel is a poor, neglected child who is to be pitied. Even the British soldiers who raid Gabriel’s house in the middle of the night looking for an IRA suspect are just obeying orders and trying to get along as best they can.
In an interview, the author states that the book is not a memoir, but he has drawn from his experiences as a boy in Northern Ireland. Readers will find that he remembers well what people said (some of the language is pretty rough) in the old houses, buses, meat markets, and school yards of the time. Some book clubs would enjoy the book. A discussion guide for the book is available at the author’s website http://www.soncalledgabriel.com/. Click “about the book” on the menu bar.
McNicholl, Damian. A Son Called Gabriel: A Novel. New York : CDS Books, c2004. ISBN 1593150180