Keeping the faith

PERHAPS the greatest compliment I can pay this book is that, at its best moments, it reminds one of James Joyce, not Ulysses, but (for reasons that will become obvious) Portrait of the Artist, but then I have to hasten to add that not all its moments are uniformly sustained. However, Joyce is a tall order at any given time, and an unfair one. Gabriel's Gift is a touching, and marvellously humorous, tale of a 15-year-old boy who discovers in himself the potentiality of being a true artist through the trials and tribulations of being an only child caught in his parents' rocky, estranged, common law marital relationship. It is a gritty, urban, contemporary novel that yet manages to nick one's sentiments at some of the right places; Kureishi clearly possesses a particular panache that makes him highly suitable for penning a London story in the 21st Century that can yet make you believe that the gift of art, true, pure, fresh and childlike, still lurks in its murky corners.

Kureishi sketches a startlingly vivid portrait of Gabriel's world: his Mum, affectionate, flaky, but determined; his father Rex, the failed musician who still lives in his brilliant bygones when he had been a member of the superstar Lester Jones group, no longer living at home because Gabriel's Mum had finally tired of his druggin-n-drinkin ways; Hannah, the fat and hairy destitute immigrant from western Europe whom his mother has taken in as housekeeper and Gabriel-minder; Mr. Speedy, a gay hamburger restaurant owner with an acute business sense; the great Lester Jones himself, now fabulously famous and trailing groupies everywhere; and the spirit of Gabriel's dead twin brother, Archie, whom he communes with and takes advice from on a regular basis. Not exactly a normal world, this, but then what's normal in 21st Century London? Perhaps this is.

Gabriel himself is not overly abnormal, given that he is a 15- year-old with a creditable artistic talent, a serious desire to make his own film with a 16mm camera, as well as a huge familial job at hand: that of bringing his wayward but loving parents back together again. In fact, he is quite remarkably stable and grounded, if one discounts his chats with the dead Archie and his propensity to find objects both in and out of his pictures come alive in alarming fashion: "The more he considered what he had done, the more disturbing he found it. Winking daffodils had tried to communicate with him. Dead brothers spoke within him. The earth, surely, had tilted and was trembling on its axis. Who would put it back before it tipped into eternity?"

If we are able at all to recall our teenage years, we shall not find Gabriel's ruminations hyperbolic. Gabriel's present personal world is more skewed than most; his responses to its vagaries delightfully natural and believable. Some of the funniest moments in the novel are those in which Gabriel metaphorically tussles the inimitable Hannah, who, in her incomprehension of English ways and language and bewilderment at Gabriel's self-possessed air, is an absolute scream. Some of the most touching are those in which Gabriel, mature way beyond his years, struggles to put his poverty-stricken father on his feet again, literally and figuratively. And some of the saddest when Gabriel watches in helplessness and horror his Mum's frenzied and pathetic attempts to create a new social, male-oriented life for her new, single self and when he is left to pick up the pieces as they fall:

For a moment she lay down on the path, her face resting on the pavement. She looked up to see Gabriel watching her, got to her feet, shook her head and went to him. He cuddled her.

They put their pyjamas on, got into her bed, watched Frasier and ate chocolates from their emergency supply.

The novel doesn't merely drift and describe; it possesses a moral centre. Rex takes Gabriel along to meet the superstar musician Lester Jones one day, and Lester, impressed by the child's prowess with his crayons, gifts him a drawing which he dedicates and autographs. This picture, financially promising given Lester's cult status, becomes the prize that each of Gabriel's parents begins to eye. Gabriel, confused and cornered, uses his own artistic gift to make two copies of Lester's picture for his parents; ironically, and perhaps tellingly, they are better than the original. When Rex sells his to Speedy, and then his Mum also plans the same (both unaware of the fraud perpetrated by their son) Gabriel faces his moment of reckoning. Though we are not surprised when he does the honourable thing, we are, indeed, relieved. For, we like Gabriel immensely, and we would like to keep our faith in him: "But Gabriel was beginning to learn that any attempt at art would be held up by inhibitions, terror and self-loathing. He was pushing against a closed door, and the door was himself". Here is a fresh version of the Joycean "silence, exile and cunning" we all know and love; I'm glad the urban novel can still recreate it successfully, and gladder still that Gabriel finds himself able to push open that door.


Gabriel's Gift, Hanif Kureishi, Faber and Faber, 2001.