Friday 25 May 2018

Gebler lyrically charts young boy's journey from innocence to maturity

Fiction

The Innocent of Falkland Road Carlo Gebler

New Island, €13.95

JAMES LAWLESS

Carlo Gebler's latest novel scripts the end of innocence in a 12-year-old boy called Ralph in 1964. The story is set within a time frame of the year his divorced mother spends away from him for work reasons in America.

Ralph stays with their Irish housekeeper Doreen and her husband Tom. Doreen, acting in loco parentis, develops a loving relationship with the young boy. But her dalliance with another man and her out-of-wedlock pregnancy leads to Tom's departure.

Receiving a rude telephone confirmation of Doreen's behaviour from Tom's sister Veronica, marks a climactic moment for the young Ralph: ''His thighs were trembling. His stomach was churning. He'd sort of known. But, also, he hadn't known. But now he'd heard Veronica it wasn't possible to be both anymore. There was only one possibility. The trouble was, he wasn't sure he was ready for that.''

Tom's injunction to Ralph before he departs to inform him if Doreen ever gets sick, and Doreen's imaginary conversation with her absent husband on the birth of her baby, convince Ralph that there is still love between the pair. And part of the story's drive involves Ralph's attempt to act as a peacemaker and entice Tom back to his wife.

Ralph matures as he learns from his encounters with bullies and paedophiles and from books such as Lord of The Flies which makes him resolve to resist the collective and stand up for his own individuality, and also from Chekhov's The Lady With the Dog, which helps him to understand the importance of secrets. But it is the real world of grown-ups that he finds 'both terrifying and baffling'.

Carlo Gebler is also an award-winning film-maker and playwright, and this becomes evident here in his frequent use of short, snappy sentences often without verbs, reminiscent of a director's instructions, and having the effect of speeding up the narrative.

However, the author is also capable of lyrical touches with the sky 'grey as old putty', and in the description of the River Thames, which is near where Ralph lived with Doreen, in its course paralleling the growing in awareness of Ralph: ''He looked down. Low tide. The river shrunken, the mud flats huge. The stretches of silt were glistening and silvered, the river a dark polished wood, heavy, dense, inert.''

In her letters to Ralph, his mother comes across as a cold fish, preoccupied with herself as she pitiably drones on about her work experiences abroad. She never enquires about her son's welfare, how he is getting on in her absences, or says she misses him. It is this aloofness in the mother which perhaps strengthens the bond between Doreen and Ralph.

Ralph weighs up the consequences if Doreen has to go away before his mother returns. This tension is heightened in a fraught telephone call from his mother informing him that Doreen has to go home to Waterford at Christmas for a few days, and he has to go to Wales to stay with Ginny, the mother of Ralph's friend Benedict. We feel for Ralph here as protest is cut short by the uncompromising tone of his mother, compounded by the primitive quality of transatlantic phone calls of the time as the US operator announces 'Time'.

The period details are accurately realised in references such as the Brown Betty and Park Drive cigarettes, and the writing is so authentic in this novel, that one hopes for a sequel.

Sunday Independent

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