Selected as one of the ten best reads of 2005 by Blogcritics.
“Wheels within wheels” is a good description of this debut production. It’s set in the author’s childhood, a Catholic family in the conflict of northern Ireland during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Gabriel Harkin struggles to identify himself as an Irish Catholic boy. His extended family relishes competition and secretly flouts religious dicta while conforming to social superficialities, more recalling Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club than Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood.
This typical coming-of-age novel has an engaging mystery entwined with a rich, many-layered set of opposing forces. The plot is simpler, yet meatier, than the recent similar debut novel, A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice, a much younger writer. Who is Gabriel, and what will become of him? Little is resolved by the end, leeway for a sequel, yet Gabriel achieves satisfying development in all areas of his life. The book received nominations for three national awards in its first year and appeared in a trade paperback edition in June 2005.
On the surface, Ulster was the scene of some of the most vicious terrorism in the interfaith battle for control of northern Ireland. Society provided the prejudice of Protestants vs. Catholics instead of the racial hatred protagonists like Richard Wright in Black Boy and Alexs Pate’s Edward in West of Rehoboth. The Harkin family experiences a midnight intrusion by troops searching for IRA members, although the incident appears to be a gratuitous peak in this story.
Surrounded by so much violence, it isn’t surprising that physical confrontations played a major role in the Irish boys’ lives. The brutality, the ugliness, was acceptable to the adults of that era, and Gabriel suffered because of his aversion to violence of any sort. Cruel and unattractive males also violated his sexual innocence, initiating more interior conflict and confusion about what kind of a person he was becoming. His family provided additional mixed signals in their approach to religious requirements.
Throughout the novel, Gabriel doesn’t stray far from his home in contrast to James Michner’s David in The Fires of Spring or Henry Miller in Black Spring. Mired in the mud and muck of his family’s rural life, he progresses to a high school and decides to leave Ireland for a university in England. That’s where McNicholl leaves Gabriel, still unsure of himself in a world of conflict.
Read an interview with the author at Writer’s Edge.