One of the many scourges of society these days, if not the most harrowing, is suicide. It often leaves more questions than answers and despite being seen by some as the cowards way out or a desperate call for help, deep down you know at the heart is a poor soul who just can’t see any solution to their troubles, no matter how much help they get.
Ireland has one of the highest rates of suicide in the European Union, 554 were recorded in 2011 alone, according to the Central Statistics Office. It is especially prevalent among young men, who are five times more likely to take their own life. In the past couple of months alone Ireland has been rocked by two tragic incidents of “Murder Suicide” in Sligo and Cork, where in each case an older brother has taken the life of their siblings before taking their own life. So it was quite Ironic that the book group met up in the middle of Suicide Awareness week which ran from the 8th-14 September to discuss this month’s book, The Gamal by Ciaran Collins.
The book tells the story of Sinead and James two talented kids living in the County Cork village of Ballyronan who meet in school when James’s family move back into the area. They quickly develop a friendship strengthened through their love of music and singing and eventually become childhood sweethearts. James is an accomplished pianist and sportsman, while Sinead is a gifted singer, who both dream of escaping their boring rural community for the bright lights of Dublin. However, they are also from different sides of the tracks and are derided by their peers for their talents and dreams when their backs are turned. James is protestant and his family live in a castle on edge of town which been passed down through the family. Sinead is catholic and lives with her abusive alcoholic parents. When James gets accepted into college in Dublin they believe their dreams are about to come true, but Sinead’s dad is diagnosed with cancer and she is guilt tripped into staying at home, while James goes onto Dublin. It’s then that the malicious local young adults, who they thought were friends, start to increase their deviousness. In the end their scheming and narrow-mindedness leads to a rape and a modern Shakespearean tragedy.
The Gamal is the first novel by Cork born writer Ciaran Collins www.ciarancollinsauthor.com, who has written a number of plays before this and is a school teacher in his spare time. The book was published by Bloomsbury www.bloomsbury.com in 2013 and won the Rooney Prize for literature in the same year. The award was set up in 1976 by Dan Rooney the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team and the former US Ambassador to Ireland and is awarded to emerging Irish writers under the age of forty.
The Gamal in the title is the narrator Charlie McCarthy who is a close friend of both Sinead and James’ as well as someone who feels somewhat instrumental in the final act. He’s rather slow, thus the nickname. Gamal is short for Gamalog, which is Irish for idiot or simpleton, although there are quite a few Irish terms for stupid or slow people. As the book goes on we discover that Charlie also suffers from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and that the book is actually a project set by Charlie’s therapist to help him overcome the events of the past five years. The local youths who are the real instigators of the events that occur are also known by nicknames, which are like badges of honour. There’s “Teesh” short Taoiseach – Irish for chief, Dinky, Snoozie, Racey, and The Rascal. At times it sounds like a modern version of the seven dwarfs. The story highlights the rural and social divisions which still exist in Ireland and what really happens when the devil makes work for idle hands and closed minds.
When I bought the book and thumbed the first few pages I thought it was a self-help book, because at regular intervals the paragraphs have headings. But once you get into this book, the quirky style of the narrative draws you in and holds you, to deliver an enthralling story.
From the very start you realize that the ending isn’t going to be nice, when Charlie describes finding a body under a local bridge and shows you photo’s of the supposed bridge. But Charlie meanders all over the place, really going around the houses in an attempt to tell the whole story. Yes, part of you urges him to just get on with it, but he’s such a loveable rogue, that he really does have you eating out of his hand. But also this comes down to Collins superb plotting.
This book came across as an Irish Adrian Mole, because in all senses it is a diary and its style is all the same even down to the pictures clumsily printed and drawn through out, to help Charlie with his story and please his therapist Dr. Quinn. But also it had remnants of The Butcher Boy by Pat McCabe, owing to the malice that simmers under surface and with the local colloquialisms it drew me back to City of Bohane by Kevin Barry, which you’ll find previously reviewed in this blog.
In Rural Ireland for years there were always really two religions, The Church and GAA, but now that the church is in serious decline, The GAA is the real main stay for the community and life revolves around the local club. Relationships are formed and broken; kids follow their parents and grandparents into the football, hurling, camogie or handball teams. This is depicted beautifully in The Gamal. The pecking order is decided by strongest player on the pitch, socially he is the alpha male too and god help anyone who upstages him, like James.
But to give it its due this book is a fantastic read, that should be on the reading list of everyone who likes a dark tragic tale told with a large infusion of modern Irish humour and wit. This book had me laughing and smiling all the way through, despite knowing at the back of my mind that it wasn’t going to end well and even when it did, you were still left with a bit of mystery to keep you guessing. Collins has managed to marry the innocence of Huckleberry Finn and dark tragedy of The Field, with the characters and humour of The Quiet Man and the riveting plot of a court room drama.
If this book proves anything, it’s the old adage never trust the quiet ones so if you fancy a dark and well written quirky Irish novel from a talented newcomer then get yourself down to your local bookshop or download a copy ASAP.