“My books are not about sex, they are about self-liberation,” said Henry Miller. The same observation holds true for the novel A Son Called Gabriel, a vivid and affecting novel that depicts the formative years of a young man who gradually discovers he is gay. Set against the backdrop of Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, with its bigotry and sectarian violence, the book depicts Gabriel Harkin’s coming to terms with his own sexuality but just as importantly with his uncertain status in the larger society. To create a new life for himself, Gabriel must throw off the suffocating blanket of a rigid family structure and its traditional mores.
Author Damian McNicholl begins his tale when Gabriel is six and has determined to quit school. Comic as this might seem (and the book offers much salty good humor), the amusement is short-lived once it becomes apparent he is the victim of intense bullying by his classmates. Gabriel is simply fed up with being “picked on, spat at,” and called a “sissy boy.” Gabriel refuses to fight back and, seeing him as an easy mark, the other boys taunt him mercilessly. Unfortunately, the torment will persist until the lad is nearly 16 years old, when the bullies have moved on.
The situation on the home front is not much better. Mammy and Daddy are hypercritical parents who seem to agree that their eldest son is over-sensitive and needs toughening up. Surrounding them is a large, extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins who, when they aren’t bemoaning some family scandal or disgrace, are constantly bickering among themselves.
Gabriel finds his only escape in schoolwork. He takes pride in being considered “brainy” and enjoys hearing himself compared to his Uncle Brendan — a priest with a dark secret who has exiled himself to Africa, where he serves as a missionary. Indeed, when Gabriel gains acceptance to the prestigious Saint Malachy’s grammar school, he rejoices in the comparison to Brendan: “My life would be ‘charmed’ like his.”
But it is not to be. New torments soon assail Gabriel, in the form of his budding sexuality. Early on he begins naively playing “doctors and nurses” with another boy, who assures him that many boys touch each other’s private parts. To his shock, Gabriel learns that others, including his longtime friend Fergal, condemn such acts. Worse still, Gabriel’s mother, a strict Catholic, regards homosexual behavior as a mortal sin. Many years of agony and self-doubt follow, during which Gabriel repeatedly prays for God’s forgiveness only to repeat the “abomination.”
Gabriel tries valiantly to be attracted to the opposite sex, even going so far as to date a wealthy Protestant girl, Fiona. The relationship outrages his parents, especially his father who has been secretly assisting elements of the Irish Republican Army. Try as he might, Gabriel cannot consummate the affair with Fiona — “homosexuality stalked me still.”
The only ray of hope comes from Uncle Brendan. The latter has suffered a nervous breakdown and has returned to Northern Ireland to forsake the priesthood. His willingness to start a new life, after bringing shame on the Harkin family, strikes Gabriel as courageous. Gabriel realizes what inner turmoil his uncle has experienced, that Brendan has “endured the same pain as me.” Gabriel confides in him, and Brendan offers a voice of reason regarding the boy’s tendencies. The older man also comes to his rescue, stepping in to thwart what could have been a catastrophe in the form of a sexual predator.
A major turning point comes when Gabriel, now 18, meets Richie, a gay British soldier. The air is electric between them, as Gabriel experiences his first willing encounter with another gay man. They embark on a deeply passionate love affair — one that must be kept secret for political reasons. Eventually, however, the truth comes out, but not before Gabriel takes the bold step of telling his parents he is gay. Their initial disbelief shifts to grudging acceptance. At long last, Gabriel is able to find some measure of comfort in his newfound identity. “I really was different,” he observes, “immeasurably different.” The truth has finally set him free.
There are more, and bolder, revelations to come as A Son Called Gabriel hurtles toward a gripping and utterly satisfying conclusion. Throughout it all, author McNicholl maintains a steady hand, conveying his protagonist’s fears and passions in straightforward, unadorned prose. Rich in character, detail, and incident, the book successfully transports the reader to a specific time and place but one with universal implications about finding one’s role in the world.