I read this for my in-person reading group and like many of the others we’ve read I hadn’t heard of it before. It is set between the 1960’s and 70’s in Northern Ireland during a time of great conflict and strife between the Catholic and Protestants. This provides an interesting backdrop to Gabriel Harkin’s own troubles and internal conflicts, when he slowly discovers that he is different to other boys.
Gabriel is a sensitive and intelligent young lad who is mercilessly bullied throughout school. Perhaps because of his unconscious knowledge that he is different, he is able to see the world around him more for what it is. McNicholl has a tendency to explain a lot of things to an unfamiliar reader if you aren’t sure what O Levels are for example, and many of the arguments for and against the Irish troubles are explained through Gabriel’s perspective.
Gabriel’s discovery about his sexuality is slow and well paced. His emotions and feelings as they conflict with his religion, and the fear he will be rejected not only by God but his family are powerful and real. It’s easy to empathise with Gabriel as he is an extremely likeable character. His family are very concerned about what their neighbours will think, never mind how their son felt. Sometimes I wanted to give certain members of his family a good slap for being so small minded.
The family dynamics, the relationships between Gabriel his parents and his siblings, between himself and his friends and the bullies are some of the things in this book I particularly enjoyed. They all felt very real and I enjoyed how they developed and changed as Gabriel grew up from being a child to a young man. His changing perspective and understanding of his family and himself as he grew up were subtle and very well written.
It is an easily accessible and well written book overall that makes for some easy, though not too light reading. Gabriel is a wholly likeable character and you want to follow him and see how he gets on after the novel has ended. That is to me, always the sign of a good book.