The brink of adolescence and an end of innocence
Carlo Gébler returns with a warm-hearted coming-of-age tale of a schoolboy in 1960s London who is trying to understand the complications of adult life, writes John Boland
The Innocent of Falkland Road
New Island, paperback, 240 pages, €13.95
This beguiling novel chronicles a year in the life of a London schoolboy as he struggles to comprehend the adult world around him and to define his own confused feelings about it all.
It is August 1964 in the suburb of Putney and 12-year-old Ralph is bidding a temporary farewell to his mother, who's off to the American east coast to design gardens for a wealthy American family. His father has long gone and he has been left in the care of Irish couple Doreen and Tom, who live in the basement and attend to domestic chores.
The house is on Falkland Road, which backs on to the Thames and where Ralph's best friend, Benedict, also lives. Benedict's mother Ginny and father Clive have an open marriage, which really means that Clive gets to come and go as he pleases while Ginny has to run the house and look after her son.
But they're nice people and so are Tom and Doreen, even if, as the year progresses, Doreen has an affair with a feckless chancer, causing Tom to leave for his sister's house in Willesden. Then Doreen gets pregnant and has a baby girl, and Ralph decides that Tom should be told how much Doreen wants him to come back.
Other events mark the 13 months of Ralph's mother's absence. There's a Christmas holiday in Wales with Benedict's family and Clive's girlfriend, Yvonne. A "moody cow", Ginny says of her and when Clive says the attraction is "just sex", to which Ginny retorts "If it's just sex, you know where to come". Ginny, though, has her own male friends, one of them brimming with socialist indignation.
There's also an enforced house clearance when Ginny's best friend Maud can't pay the bail for a drug-dealing husband who has scarpered. There's the severe beating Ralph gets from two thugs on a railway bridge near his house, which shakes him badly, though not irreparably. And there are more public events to be recorded, such as the funeral of Winston Churchill and the assassination of Malcolm X
Although the book is told in the third person, all of this is seen through the developing consciousness of Ralph, who is full of wonder about the world in which he finds himself and is trying to figure out why adults behave as they do.
Teetering on the brink of adolescence, he is also becoming immersed in books - William Golding's Lord of the Flies, which he's reading as a school project, and Chekhov's The Lady with the Dog, given to him by one of Ginny's male friends - and these alert him to aspects of human behaviour he'd never thought about.
From these and from his own perceptions, he begins to understand that people are more complicated than he'd imagined and that his own feelings are, too, and that everyone has a "secret centre", including his mother, who is far from home and whom he misses but who sends him regular chatty letters.
Gébler, who is now 63, has written of childhood before, not least his own. As the son of Edna O'Brien and Ernest Gébler, he has confronted the spectre of his tyrannical and emotionally abusive father more than once, most strikingly in Father and I (2000), a memoir of their troubled relationship during and after the author's London boyhood.
Readers will also know him as the author of three outstanding novels based on historical fact: The Cure (1994), about Bridget Cleary, who was accused of being a witch in 19th-century rural Ireland; How to Murder a Man (1998), concerning violent attacks on land agents in Co Monaghan; and The Dead Eight (2011), about a dreadful miscarriage of justice following the murder of a woman in 1940s Tipperary.
These focused on savage times and savage actions, but this new novel is an altogether gentler book, suffused with loving recreations of the era and of the mundane nature of daily life in its London suburb.
Gébler's own upbringing in the same London at the same time obviously provided him with many of the details that are evoked here, but the book transcends these details through its absorbing insights into the frailties and foibles of its principal characters.
Ralph himself is a character to cherish, but everyone is given their due in this warm-hearted coming-of-age novel.