Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ireland: The Gamal, by Ciarán Collins

The narrator of this book is Charlie, who is known in his small Irish village as "the gamal". This is short for "gamallogue", an Irish word that seems to mean simpleton or village idiot. Charlie has witnessed traumatic events and is writing 1000 words a day at the request of his "head shrink" who believes it will help him with his PTSD. Gradually, the tragedies that beset his best friends James and Sinead, are revealed.

I loved this book. Not for the plot, which is in the end, based on fairly universal themes. In fact, towards the end, I found myself thinking of Shakespeare. Not in the sense of one Shakespeare play modernised (as in West Side Story, for instance). I did think "Romeo and Juliet" but then I found myself recognising elements of several more Shakespearean tragedies - I won't say which for fear of spoilers. What is more amazing about this book is the sense of voice. The way in which Charlie is brought to life as an observer who sees and understands a good deal more than the locals give him credit for. He is largely silent but not unintelligent. The way in which the book is cast as a sort of stream of consciousness - the "thousand words a day" device - basically a "shitty first draft" as Ann Lamott would say without it actually being shitty to read. It's in a way, a similar difficulty to writing conversation. If you transcribed what people actually say, it would be tedious and boring. The skill is in making it sound conversational, without it being actually so. In the same way, the style of this book has to convince as a first draft, and yet manage to reveal the story in a way that is not too baffling and not too repetitive. Which it does, admirably. There is enough of the nonsense that Charlie types just to fill his word count to make it sound like a first draft, and enough jumping back and forward in time, but not so much that the story suffers. In fact it only serves to enhance the tension - what did actually happen to Sinead and James? Why is Charlie so distraught that he barely left his room for two years?

Ciarán Collins was born in County Cork, where he is a teacher, in 1977. This is his first novel. I will certainly be on the lookout for the next.

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