Ciaran Collins’s debut novel, The Gamal, is a tragicomedy that narrates the unusual happenings in the picturesque little Irish town of Ballyronan from the perspective of 25-year-old Charlie, treated by everyone as the village idiot, or the ‘Gamal’, as they say in Irish.
Charlie is recovering from a serious psychological illness owing to some terrible things that happened to his best friends Sinead and James. As part of therapy, his doctor has advised him to write 1,000 words everyday, as it would help him to “bring himself out of himself a bit.” So he is reluctantly writing a book where he claims to tell the truth behind the tragic incidents involving his friends that shook the town of Ballyronan. He warns the readers in the beginning itself not to expect “any big flowery longwinded poetic picturesque horse***t passages” in the book lest they anticipate some extraordinary literature from him.
Unobliged to be either systematic or impressive in his narrative, Charlie meanders through the first part of the book with his casual thoughts, page-filling drawings, court transcripts and dictionary entries arousing both curiosity and impatience among the reader. As the story is revealed through his non-linear and unstructured ramblings, one learns that Charlie is deeply attached to Sinead, who is in love with James.
Drawn together by their common passion for music, the trio have been best friends since their school days.
Sinead, the most beautiful and talented singer, is the protagonist of Charlie’s story. James, deeply in love with Sinead, is a rich Protestant Christian youth in a town of majority Catholic population. Then there are Denis a.k.a Dinky, Tracey, Snoozie, Teesh and Roundy, who form the other major characters in Charlie’s book.
Charlie describes the heady adolescent days he spent with Sinead and James with great nostalgia. As a mentally and emotionally disturbed youth with a dark story to tell, he keeps the reader’s curiosity aroused with his non-traditional storytelling skills or rather the lack of them. Even when the glowing personalities of Sinead and James are juxtaposed with his own seeming insignificance in the whole scheme of things, he manages to impress the reader with his veiled intelligence.
In his straight-from-the-heart narrative, the unbridled passion of youth drunk on music, love and grand dreams for the future brims over. He sketches Sinead with such intensity that her ethereal personality evokes a lump in the throat.
As a quiet observer of things, Charlie is the first to notice the monstrous clouds of jealousy, hatred and insecurity forming silently over Sinead and James. He remains a mute spectator as the violent minds of Ballyronan insidiously destroy the lives of the unsuspecting lovebirds. However, the world may consider him a helpless Gamal, but it doesn’t fathom the depths of his love and loyalty that will avenge the wrong done to Sinead.
In Charlie, Collins creates a character that one will either love or hate but cannot ignore. Fiercely original, Charlie is charming in his inability to abide by the rules of the civilised world. “I loved my mammy and daddy but I couldn’t believe they wanted me to be good. I think I must have been very disappointed at that time,” he says reminiscing about an incident from his toddler days.
Though he promises his readers that he will only write the truth, it soon becomes apparent that he is only telling his version of the story. A story where anything is justified as long as it is done for the sake of one’s love. The sweet, passionate love between Sinead and James; the soulmate kind of connection between Charlie and Sinead; the fearless yet gentle spirit of James; the obsession of the trio with music and how they evolve through it — are all narrated in a matter-of-fact fashion by Charlie. He is very funny, clever, shrewd and anything but the Gamal.
The Gamal is a winner on many counts. Like Edna O’Brien rightly mentions on the cover, the nearest literary ancestor of Collins’s book would be The Catcher in the Rye. Collins manages to explore the mental, emotional, sexual and moral confusions that churn inside the cauldron of youthful passions quite engagingly. He shows the courage to beat the lesser trodden path with his narrative style and writes with confidence. The use of the Irish slang in the book lends a rustic charm to the story. An impressive debut by the young Irishman, The Gamal is dark, witty, heartbreaking, and very clever.