Review: The Gamal, By Ciarán Collins

The idiot's guide to Irish love stories

'Gamal" is short for gamalóg, an Irish term for simpleton or fool, and the gamal of the title is our narrator Charlie. He suffers from a condition called Oppositional Defiant Disorder, a description of which he helpfully cuts and pastes from the internet for us. Essentially, Charlie is congenitally unco-operative and contrary, but he is by no means the fool others mistake him for. Nonetheless, there are advantages to being labelled a gamal, because Charlie is free to do and say whatever he wants. Mind you, often that is very little on both counts. Instead, he is a dedicated watcher and listener.

Charlie grew up in the town of Ballyronan in Cork with his great friends Sinéad and James, who were inseparable from the off. We know that Charlie is receiving therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder and that a tragedy concerning Sinéad and James has occurred. We just don't know how or when.

Charlie's psychiatrist, Dr Quinn, has suggested that Charlie writes this account of events as therapy. Of course, Charlie is not going to take his task entirely seriously. On page one he emphasises that this is a book for people who hate reading. Music is important to his tale and his treatment of song lyrics is reliably mischievous. He gets around the problem of music publishers' charges for reproduction by leaving blank lines for readers to fill in themselves. Elsewhere, he throws in whatever else takes his fancy: court transcripts and drawings he's made, as well as wilful digressions and anecdotes broad-ranging beyond any mere canine shagginess, with a fine ear for ribald vernacular to the fore.

He is a tremendous storyteller all the same. Our disquiet grows as he observes the ill-will gathering around the star-crossed lovers. Sinéad is a gifted singer, but this is a provincial world of jealous conservatism in which talent is envied and resented. It is also a milieu where ancient enmities live on and a Protestant such as James runs the risk of their resurgence.

The Gamal sprawls to more than 450 pages, but the unflagging ingenuity of Ciarán Collins's writing justifies its length. He exists somewhere in a literary territory between Patrick McCabe and Roddy Doyle, but he is very much his own man and this is a cracking debut, as moving as it is entertaining.