He might be playing the fool, but this is no village idiot
Ciaran Collins's outstanding first novel concerns a doomed teenage love affair in a rural West Cork small town sometime in the 1990s. Yet though the story is essentially tragic, comedy comes in the form of narrator Charlie, who proves to be a highly entertaining chronicler of what happens.
Charlie is the gamal of the title, a god-help-you kind of young fella who is regarded by most of the town's inhabitants as not quite the full shilling – a more benign version, if you like, of The Butcher Boy's Francie Brady but with a personality all his own as he recalls events which so traumatised him that, on the advice of his psychiatrist, he's retelling them in the book we have in our hands.
Part of the amusement comes from the way in which Charlie and the author play with our expectations of how such a chronicle should be presented – how long chapters should be and where they should end; how much digressiveness is permissible; whether facts should be told in chronological order; and how to get around the problem of reproducing lyrics from well-known songs without paying royalties to their composers.
And Charlie's frequent asides – on Irish language and history, on Shane MacGowan, on whether enough happens in Leitrim to warrant a county song – are very funny, while the narrative is full of arrestingly droll images, such as when Charlie contemplates a Holy Communion ceremony: "The boys in suits like small little car salesmen and the girls like baby brides."
But the tragic element is always there as small-town jealousy, resentment and malevolence seek to destroy the childhood friendship that has grown into a deep love between the assured and outgoing James, son of land-owning Protestant parents, and Sinead, the fragile product of a dysfunctional Catholic family. "You'd think ancient history is ancient history," Charlie reflects. "It isn't. Not in Ireland anyhow." And so it proves.
At 460 pages, the book is perhaps too long for its own good, though it would be hard to wish it shorter. "You won't like me," Charlie had warned us in the opening pages, adding: "I would have explained this in the first line but I wanted you to buy the book." But then in the first page he had already warned us not to expect "any big flowery longwinded poetic picturesque horseshit passages" as the book was meant "for people like myself who hate reading".
On the contrary, this is for people who love reading and who will welcome an engrossing story that's brilliantly told. Collins, who's in his mid-30s and teaches English and Irish in a West Cork school, has created a remarkable first novel.