First published in: 2001
This edition: Faber and Faber, 2002
Genre: coming of age, family
Cover: design by Pentagram; cover photography by Walter Bibikow (Photonica)
GABRIEL'S GIFT is the very first book by Hanif Kureishi that I've read; SOMETHING TO TELL YOU awaits on my ever-so-huge To-Be-Read-pile. GABRIEL'S GIFT is a thin book, and slightly obscure, but I figured it would serve as a nice introduction to Kureishi's writing. I was not wrong; GIFT, while not without its downsides, is beautifully written and it has enthused me with regards to Kureishi.
GABRIEL GIFT, set in England, is a witty novel focusing on 15 year-old Gabriel and his fallen-apart family consisting of his loving, but at times selfish mother, a Russian au pair named Hannah, a deceased twin named Archie (who's still very much present in Gabriel's mind) and his father Rex – a musician who's somehow just missed the train to Fameville, and has been mentally stuck in the past ever since, perpetually comparing his entire life to that one moment when he could be found on stage, playing alongside the now legendary rock star Lester Jones.
When his mother kicks his father out (and hires Hannah to help her take care of her son), Gabriel turns to his artwork – a young man with a definite talent and passion (he wants to be a filmmaker), the visual arts are about as important to him as music is to his father. Gabriel's wise in that sense – he does understand his father better than anyone; it is the father-son relationship that makes the heart that is this novel beat.
Rex, forever stuck in the days of glitter suits and platform shoes, remains hopeful for another chance at fame, so when Lester Jones rings him up, Gabriel gets to meet him as well. Connecting with Lester through their shared love of art, Lester bestows upon Gabriel one of his own art works, a drawing, which immediately threatens to cause a further rift between Gabriel's parents: his dad wants to sell it, his mom wants to keep it safe. As any kid who'd rather not see his parents be apart, he has to find a way to keep them both happy in order for them to find happiness together again.
Having finished this book now, I must say that I'm very pleased with Kureishi as an author – and will scope out some of his other work besides the one still residing in my book case. I just haven't been as taken with this book, which I'll explain soon.
The protagonist has been one of the most sympathetic characters I've run into in a while; Gabriel's sensitive yet dry in wit, talented but unpretentious, sexually ambiguous and slightly devious as any rebellious adolescent with a weird au pair would be. I've really liked to read about him, his thoughts and realizations. He's a rich character, and genuinely interesting.
The more I read, the more I realized that this book is a coming of age story, but it isn't Gabriel who needs to grow up: his parents both do.
Rex I feel is a selfish man, stuck with his head in the clouds, talented for sure, but unwilling to get off his ass and do something about his life as it is now. Christine, the mother, ah. She isn't as well developed as the other characters, but she also needs to have a serious look at herself. Both of them are just stuck in their rock-and-roll lifestyle, a life lived several decades ago, not realizing very well that they are older now, washed out even, with a son to feed.
Rex and Christine, finally, come of age, with the help of their teen-aged soon.
So I do appreciate the idea behind the story, but it's the way this all comes about, with a drawing from Lester as the device, that doesn't really float my boat. Gabriel's character made up for enough for me to continue and finish the book, but I must say the story in itself became a chore to get through, a little dull even at some point – and the book's only 178 pages. And it had such potential. Kureishi offers up several vague ideas, but doesn't do anything with them.
At first I thought the book would veer off into a more supernatural area: Gabriel would be drawing objects and see them materialize in his bedroom when he'd finished the drawing. Only to have them vanish from sight after crumpling up the pages. Gabriel, however, quickly insists they must be hallucinations from the pot he occasionally smokes. Hmm. Okay. So that's a dead end (and that's how the reader actually feels about it: huh, okay, guess we're not going in that direction after all).
Add to that his conversations with his dead twin Archie, and you're kind of inclined to think something more is going on with Gabriel's mind. But Kureishi never gets into that – it must be a cute little Gabriel-thing Kureishi wanted to add to his character. It wasn't about having a supernatural gift, and it also wasn't about psychosis. What these details were about then, I'm not sure. But these elusive "teasers" that went nowhere did contribute to my feeling that the eventual plot wasn't too exciting.
I'm well aware that Kureishi is a very good writer, but this book and its ideas are a little like an incomplete experiment. GABRIEL'S GIFT has a beginning, middle and ending, so there is a properly developed plot. But I've never had a book with a clear ending feel so open-ended.