Amiable debut about a young man’s coming of age in 1970s Northern Ireland.
We’re in Ireland, all right, but it’s not exactly Frank McCourt territory: For one thing, the narrator is gay—or, rather, is becoming gay; 30 years ago homosexuality was still approached in a roundabout fashion in Ireland. Our hero is young Gabriel Harkin, the eldest of four children in a lower-middle class Catholic family living in a small village in Ulster. Somewhat dreamy and shy, Gabriel gets picked on at school, but he has plenty of friends and is far from an outcast, unlike his uncle Brendan, a missionary priest working in Kenya who never comes home and is spoken of with surprisingly little reverence by his family. Gabriel’s nemesis is Henry Lynch, a thuggish schoolmate who bullies him mercilessly for being a “sissy.” Just as bad in his own way is neighbor Noel, a somewhat older boy who takes Gabriel under his wing and “plays doctor” with him. By the time Gabriel gets to high school, he’s adept at cruising and leads more and more of a double life, dating girls and picking up boys almost simultaneously. His first serious girlfriend, Fiona McFarland, is the daughter of a well-to-do Protestant bigot. It is a star-crossed romance in more ways than one, and it leads Gabriel into a full-fledged identity crisis, which culminates with an astonishing discovery about his parents that also explains the cloud hanging over Uncle Brendan. At the close, Gabriel is setting off into the world just as unsure of his direction as before, but with very little fear of the future. The confusions to come are more obvious to us than to him, but such is the nature of youth.
A nice start indeed: McNicholl writes in an easygoing, natural tone that’s neither manipulative nor sentimental and succeeds in conveying the real innocence of childhood as it invades maturity.