My editor told me to read this book and write this review. Six hundred words, he said. Just like the psychiatrist Dr. Quinn instructed Charlie, the protagonist of said book, to write one thousand words a day. Therapy apparently. The big reveal is exactly why Charlie needs therapy. The suspense is meant to keep you reading.
Charlie is known locally in the village of Ballyronan, Cork where he lives as a ‘gamal’ (‘a bit of God help us’). In medical speak that’s ODD. Oppositional Defiant Disorder. In practical terms it means he can’t resist reminding us how little he wants to be writing what we’re reading and what a waste of time this all is. I could do a Charlie at this point and threaten to copy out the telephone book rather than write. I could say that, either way, it wouldn’t matter; all my editor cares about is regular content and I’d get the same loony comments from you right-wing nutters who read this rag. You’ll definitely keep on reading this review just to see if I insult you again.
But that wouldn’t be polite, though, would it?
Charlie is basically mentally programmed to be difficult. In common with all fictional characters on the spectrum, he has:
1. An amazing talent. Imperative, since Rain Man, for anyone with special needs. Charlie has a perfect auditory memory. 250 pages in, I can skim read.
2. A compulsion to address the reader directly. Charlie keeps reminding us he’s writing. Meant to show that takes on the world are always subjective. We all see things differently. You may enjoy this book.
3. A distrust of fancy words and figurative language. Mark Haddon’s Christopher Boone thinks metaphors are stupid. Charlie thinks similes are a waste of time. Appreciation of a) lists b) numbers and c) dictionary definitions.
4. A dislike of words (see above). Charlie loves music. He can’t afford the royalties to reproduce lyrics so he leaves _________ to fill in. I’m tonally impaired and too lazy to Google the lyrics for their significance.
5. A dark side. If someone can’t recognize a smile, they’re capable of anything. Charlie can register emotions but is not easily swayed. Unpredictable.
6. Unusual intelligence. People we take for fools are often clever than we think. Often they’re taking us for the fool. See Shakespeare.
So, you know about the main character. There’s also Sinéad, the heroine. She can sing and she’s the first person to be nice to Charlie. You can be sure something bad is going to happen to her.
The same goes for her boyfriend James. Good singer, nice to Charlie and all laws of fiction would be broken if something bad didn’t happen to him; this is a book about Ireland and he’s the token Protestant.
There are more: Dinky, Teesh, Racey and others I can’t be bothered to list. Partly because they’re only there to represent the jealousy and conformity small towns breed and partly because, if Charlie can’t be bothered to describe them, why should I?
Five hundred and six words.
I might draw a drawing of a pencil here. Why not?
Back to the review.
A publicist might call The Gamal a JD Salinger version of A Curious Incident … as told by Roddy Doyle (See no.3 on elaborate descriptions). I’d say ODD would serve as an accurate diagnosis of the book. But at four hundred and sixty six pages long, it’s an ambitious amount of defiant opposition from a debut novel. Five hundred and eighty three words down. Five words to go. I thought this book was _________.
The Gamal by Ciarán Collins is published by Bloomsbury. (£12.99)