On the bookshelf: The Gamal by Ciarán Collins

A fairly gushing review of The Gamal by Ciaran Collins… 

The Gamal (via ciarancollinsauthor.com)

The Gamal (via ciarancollinsauthor.com)

Ireland is a paradise for language lovers. I don’t mean those who think English should be spoken one way and one way only: the way of the OED. While I get as het up by stray apostrophes as the next nerd, the Queen’s English ceased to exist when the British Empire spread its tentacles across the world. Former colonies, Ireland included, have adapted and moulded the English language to suit the locale and the rhythm of their own language.

Hiberno-English, a form of speech littered with Irish syntax (‘I’m after doing it, I seen, I goes, I do be going everyday’) and Irish words, is not what it was. This is probably due to the usual factors; the majority of Ireland’s younger population are educated to degree level and often beyond; the influence of British and American pop culture; and it’s probably seen as a little backward to say ‘I do be’. However, it’s far from dead. It seems no Irish person can resist a good ‘I’m after’ and it’s common to hear it on the news, especially when an interviewee is good and riled. Pockets of Ireland seem to have their own language, for example, Co Wexford.

Indeed, a Wexford friend of mine told me that their sixth-year English teacher had to tell her seventeen-year-old charges not to write ‘quare’, the Wexford quantifier meaning ‘very’, in their Leaving Cert essays, as the State Examinations Commission expected more conventional English.

But I’m digressing. For a writer, it’s very frustrating to hear that this rich seam of language can’t be used because international markets just ‘won’t get it’. Ireland is a very small place after all, and despite our high notions (a perfect Irish phrase!) most people in the outside world know very little about us.

I’ve read Irish novels where the Irishness has been stripped out; the gardai becoming the police is an especial bugbear of mine. Perhaps it’s not fair to name the author, but a crime novel where all concerned with the legal system did not use the official name of the Irish police force required too much suspension of disbelief. Another novel where hurling was referred to as hurley annoyed me so much I had to set it aside. These books take place in a sort of parallel Ireland, one I’m certain I’ve never visited. International readers may understand what’s happening, but they are leaving with a falsified, bland picture of this maddening, lovely little country.

Ciarán Collins’ The Gamal should serve as inspiration to any Irish writer struggling with these issues. The fact that it was picked up by UK publishers Bloomsbury is even more heartening. The West Cork schoolteacher’s debut captures the cadences and rhythms of Irish speech perfectly. I can’t praise this novel highly enough, but I’ll give it a go anyway.

Charlie is the gamal of the title. What’s a gamal? Well every Irish village has one; the towns might have a little coterie of them. A gamal is someone not quite right; in less PC times they might have been called ‘simple’.

Charlie knows well that he is a gamal; he is anything but stupid. He was diagnosed with something called Oppositional Defiance Disorder as a child; if someone asked him to do a task, he would do the opposite. Now twenty-five, his therapist, Dr Quinn, asks him to write down his story in order to gain some closure of the traumatic events of his teens. It emerges that Charlie has spent the best part of two years in bed; he gets violent headaches and feels sick whenever he hears music. He has post-traumatic stress disorder. But what could have happened to make Charlie this way?

Cape Clear, where some of The Gamal takes place (via Wikimedia Commons)

Cape Clear, where some of The Gamal takes place (via Wikimedia Commons)

His friends, James and Sineád, are definitely something to do with it. The trio have been great friends since primary school. James is a wealthy Protestant from Dublin whose family came to West Cork to renovate the big house their ancestors used to run; Sinead is a girl from a council house whose parents are distant, moody and, in her father’s case, an alcoholic. The trio bond over music; James, a good footballer, becomes a linchpin of the local team and is, on the surface, very popular. He and Sineád fall in love and are inseparable. However, they are star-crossed lovers and we all know what happens to those.

Due to his status as a gamal, people let their guard down around Charlie. It’s what he overhears that leads us to believe that the tragedy surrounding Sineád and James has been manipulated and engineered by jealous members of their gang. It’s an expert study in bullying and influence, and never feels false. Although I initially agreed with Irish Times reviewer Eilis O’Dhuibne’s assessment  that James’ aggressors, Teesh and Dinky, would not  hark back to his family’s misdeeds in the famine when justifying their destruction of him, on reflection,  I’ve heard enough drunken ramblings of young Irishmen to believe anything’s possible.

With all the furore surrounding cyber-bullying at the moment, it’s important to remind ourselves that social networks and smartphones are merely new tools enabling a very old practice. The Gamal is clearly set in the late 80s and early 90s (the fourth-class boys worship Susanna from The Bangles, Sineád adores Nirvana, the trio go see local heroes The Frank and Walters in Cork), and yet these kids are well able to make each others’ lives a misery without help from Apple or Samsung. Ciarán Collins has an artist’s eye for the little shifts in mood and tone that can turn an incident from benign to sinister; the campaign against James and Sineád is subtle and incremental but culminates in a series of horrific acts.

The novel is quite experimental in form and if you like your stories with a beginning, middle and end, it might not suit you. Charlie often reminds us that we are reading a book, which he’s writing under Dr Quinn’s duress; he keeps the reader updated with word-counts, scans in pictures of everything from candleflame to leaves; even draws the ugly, laughing faces of his friend’s tormentors.

Another agonising fate shared by writers is the copyright terms surrounding music lyrics. Much as we’d love to fire a few well-chosen Smiths’ lyrics into our novels, every word costs money. A lot of money. Music meant everything to Sineád and by extension, Charlie too. Collins surmounts this obstacle by having Dr Quinn inform Charlie of the copyright laws. He then decides to place lines for the reader to write the lines of important songs themselves.

If the novel has a fault, it’s probably the length it takes for Charlie to get to the action. However, we can forgive him this; reading isn’t his thing after all, and he has found it impossible to talk about for all these years. And when the end comes, it’s every bit as heartbreaking as you would expect. There’s an echo of The Catcher in the Rye in the final pages, but unlike Holden, Charlie recognises that the ‘phonies’ of his world are very much in the minority.

From a personal point of view, bittersweet memories of my own teenage years in small-town Co Cork resurfaced throughout. Non-Irish readers may struggle with the language, but for me it was like sitting in at the local pub, which was refreshing in itself. A fantastic debut which proves Irish writing is, as ever, in rude health.

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