Gabriel’s Gift follows a few months in the life of Gabriel Bunch, a fifteen year old North London schoolboy in search of his muse. Gabriel’s parents have recently split up, and his father, once the bass player for 70s rock idol Lester Jones, is now an aging work-aphobic, living in squalor in a greasy bedsit on the wrong side of town.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Hanif Kureishi
Faber and Faber, 2001
RRP A$25.00, £9.95, 178pp
Hanif Kureishi is a well respected author. His screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette received an Oscar nomination, and was made into a well received film with Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead. His other screenplays, Sammie and Rosie Get Laid, and London Kills Me were also popular. His first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia won the Whitbread Prize for Best First Novel in 1990, and he has published short stories, three other novels, plays, and a non-fiction book on Pop music. In light of his extensive experience, Gabriel’s Gift is something of a disappointment. It follows a few months in the life of Gabriel Bunch, a fifteen year old North London schoolboy in search of his muse. Gabriel’s parents have recently split up, and his father, once the bass player for 70s rock idol Lester Jones, is now an aging work-aphobic, living in squalor in a greasy bedsit on the wrong side of town. His mother, a one-time seamstress to pop stars, is waitressing and trying to get a new life together for herself and her son in the wake of her husbands’ ousting. Gabriel himself is drifting between depression and exaltation, like many teenagers, and trying to come to terms with his parent’s situation, their lack of responsibility, and his own gifts, imagination, and creative urges.
In some ways, the story is a good one, focusing attention on the post-60s generation; those responsible children placed in the position of putting their parents’ lives back together, and whose own childhood is subsumed under the combination of their “cool” parents’ drugs and infidelities. For this generation, rebellion consists in eating a Big Mac, or refusing to attend the family yoga sessions or meditate, rather than in doing drugs, or having early relationships. Looking deeply into the psychology of this post-Beat generation en masse, from a literary perspective, presents potentially interesting material, which has not been explored that much, despite the continuing interest in the 60s generation. However, the character of Gabriel is thin, and never really develops enough to carry the weight of the story. The narrative moves inconsistently between a first and third person narrative, slipping between monologues about “Dad, and his dejection”, and a narrative voice which speaks of Gabriel, and his capabliities, and while clearly presenting Gabriel’s point of view at all time. The reader is never allowed past the superficial observations made by this supposedly gifted child, or allowed to get below his skin, beneath his witty quips, or the intensity of his relationship with his parents. Part of the problem is the shifting narrative which seems to want to stay in third person, but which tries to occasionally use first person to show more of Gabriel, without going into the pain he feels at his parent’s loss, or more importantly his insecurities, or longings. There are hints at what he could be, such as Gabriel’s jealousy of his dad’s students, or even the slightly erotic feeling he fights against towards his mother, but again, they never move beyond the shadowy musings given by an unclear narrator, who is neither Gabriel, nor someone else, nor completely indifferent, but just a patchy voice which doesn’t fit the story.
There is a hint of magic realism at the the novel’s start, where Gabriel’s drawings come to life, but it peters out without explanation. Was Gabriel hallucinating the coming to life of the daffodils, or a chair, due to smoking too much pot? There is no indication of pot smoking, or drug taking, other than a reference later in the story to his having given it up when his father lights up. This might have developed into an interesting aberration or neurosis to add some life and depth to Gabriel, especially if he began to struggle with his hallucinations or with a drug addiction, especially in conjunction with talks to his dead twin. Either of these devices might have also hinted at Gabriel’s imaginative powers, clearly an important theme in the book, if they were developed more, particularly in the context of Gabriel’s own personality and traits. Other characters are similarly lacking in depth, from Gabriel’s father Rex, whose transformation from a loser to an inspired and committed music teacher happens too quickly to be believable, to Gabriel’s mother, who’s combination of alcohol swilling party girl and serious mother desperate for her son to have a stable life, again, simply doesn’t develop into something more than a filmic charicature. Hannah, the hefty, hairy bodyguard from the Eastern Block, could also be an interesting character, and her fear of being deported could have provided a point of sympathy, as it does, to a certain extent, for Gabriel, but again, her character never develops beyond the physical description, and her comic accent and mannerisms. As a screenplay, I’m sure this story would work well. The plot is relatively interesting, and the characters have enough comic potential, and superficial conflict, to make for a good film, or play. However, as a novel, the book promises more than it offers, leaving the reader as uninvolved, and unmoved, as they would after a relaxing, engaging, but rather uninspiring film. I’ll look forward to the film adaptation.