Tuesday 20 February 2018

Review: Gabriel's Gate by Tom Galvin

Book Republic, €19.99 (Hardback)
Pacy tale of young unemployed on a commune fits recession-lit gene perfectly, writes Angela M Cornyn

Angela M Cornyn

'He felt at ease, despite the fact they were all alone in this huge place, acres of land all around them, all of it drenched in darkness: the fields and forests that swept across the countryside; the desolate buildings and deserted towns; the nocturnal animals out in the fields, crawling through the hedgerows, scampering on the floor of the woods; the wind blowing in gusts and the branches of trees tapping on the windows; the empty corridors and the floorboards that creaked all by themselves. G slept like the dead."

The above excerpt captures the setting for Tom Galvin's debut novel, Gabriel's Gate, a dark thriller set on a farm turned commune in recession-ridden Ireland.

The bleak, barren landscape, economic chaos, emigration of young people to distant lands, the closure of businesses and the resultant desolation suffered by destroyed communities is painted relentlessly by Galvin in appropriately sparse writing.

This powerful all-pervasive setting allows for no release from the hardship currently experienced by many in Ireland.

Usually, fiction is read to provide an escape from the humdrum reality of everyday life. Reading Galvin's novel is quite an eerie experience, especially in the middle of winter, in that this contemporaneous story evokes such a visceral response that the reader may feel like an extra character in the book. This feeling is unnerving, but worth the discomfort.

The plot is a simple one. The novel is set in 2010 as the recession is making invidious inroads into the fabric of Irish society. Against this backdrop, a group of college students must make decisions about their future.

The choices are stark. It is clear that post-Celtic Tiger Ireland affords them no job opportunities so do they accept unemployment or follow the well-worn path taken by their ancestors since the famine, of emigration to America, Australia or Canada? But, maybe, there is another option. One of the group, with the minimalistic name, G, a complex and, at times, obsessive character, has the capacity to think outside the box.

"It's about finding a new way of life for the times we are in," G declares. He decides to match his dream of a utopian lifestyle with the assets of his friend John, who has inherited a rundown farm from his uncle. The farm will get a make-over when G succeeds in enlisting a motley labour force of like-minded students to work on it and engage in an alternative lifestyle capable of keeping their ecological and philosophical ideals intact.

"They all swore they were going to turn their backs on the rat race for a time. That they would dedicate at least a year to pursue something radically different." Put more bluntly, the result is a struggling farm commune of young, educated, hippie-New Age adults who endure harsh weather conditions, frugal living and personal deprivations coupled with back-breaking farm work.

What keeps them going in the midst of such adversity is their sense of achievement in turning things around on the farm, a sense of community and the tacit view that they have not succumbed to a capitalist life model.

Of course, what the group, in their innocence, ignore is the fact that they are not living in a vacuum. The previous owner of the farm, that they now inhabit, was involved in a double-dealing property sale which caused serious repercussions for the local community. This legacy propels the group into a head-on collision with ghosts who epitomise evil.

One does not have to be prescient to forecast that an ominous event will befall the innocent, idealistic young characters and one's expectations are not disappointed with the grim ending.

The strength of this pacy novel, which falls perfectly into the new genre of "recession lit", is that it is a fine example of a novel for our times. Secondly, the idealism and energy of the young people, who populate its pages as they seek to eke out a living in the economic wasteland left behind by the Celtic Tiger bandits, gives a modicum of hope for the future. "When you strip everything away, what you really need to live is what counts. Happiness comes from that."

A relevant, fresh and creative novel.

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