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R&R 110 | Gabriel's Gift

Hanif Kureishi
Gabriel's Gift
First published in: 2001
This edition: Faber and Faber, 2002
ISBN: 0-571-20929-7
Genre: coming of age, family
Pages: 178
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.

R&R 108 | Brand New Friend

Mike Gayle
Brand New Friend
First published in: 2005
This edition: Hodder and Stoughton 2005
ISBN: 0-340-89565-9
Genre: humor, chick & ladlit
Pages: 344
Cover design & illustration – unfortunately uncredited :/
Guest appearance by Wil – the Harry to my Sally

R&R 108 | Brand New Friend

Mike Gayle is my go-to-guy if I need a break from tedious reading, or a tedious series of events in life. He rarely disappoints.
…I was reading THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING when I decided to put that down for a while, favoring a regular British bloke over a bunch of hobbits fretting over a ring. Sorry Tolkien. It's nothing personal. One of these days, I will continue your book. (I do like LotR, don't get me wrong. I just haven't been able to finish it, yet.)
But at that moment, I needed to just pick up a book: mind on zero, feet up, enjoy. I picked up BRAND NEW FRIEND.

Rob's girlfriend Ashley's sick of commuting: it's time to take the "long-distance" out of "long-distance relationship", and move in together. Rob hasn't got much of a choice (it's moving or losing her): after some thinking, he decides to take the step and to move to Manchester to be with her. This move won't hurt his career much: he can continue to work from home, a home he now shares with his wonderful girlfriend.
No, the biggest sacrifice is that he has to leave his best friend behind. Rob's confident that he's made the right choice by going with Ashley, but he can't shake this feeling of loneliness, an empty space (next to his bar stool) that only a best mate can fill again.
Months go by, however, and still no luck. Where's Rob's new best friend?? And then, he meets the perfect new pal. Except Jo, well…

…Jo's a girl.

Brand New Friend was enjoyable, and I finished it easily and happily, but it wasn't my favorite book of Gayle's. It was Rob's fault: I found him to be a whiny fellow, the type who has an unhealthy dependency: having friends no more than three feet removed from his own person. The bloke dates he went on (placing adverts in the paper hoping to meet a new best friend) made for very amusing reading material, but I couldn't help thinking Rob was a little desperate and slightly pathetic in a silly way. He's got it good: a great relationship, a new home and a snazzy job. I mean… there was overreaction. Lots of it.
Then again, it did make him rather funny at times. I found myself sighing and shaking my head while laughing at him a little. He actually was, throughout it all, endearing.

Dude, it's okay to be alone every now and then. And true friendship defies any distance. I didn't see the problem, personally. I didn't see why the London best mate was suddenly written off as being a valid best mate. Because of some distance? Ah.

I also recognized a lot of Rob's character traits in Mike Gayle's other male protagonists, so it did feel like I've read about this guy before, even though I haven't. Mike's 'blokes' tend to be alike in ways.

Another complaint I have focuses on Rob's Ashley: she seems a little bit too perfect. I don't know a lot of women who don't freak out when their man regularly hangs out with another single woman, just the two of them, forming a(n emotional) connection together. Not when the two friends hide it from the girlfriend for a good while before laying the surprise on her. Secrecy usually implies there's something to hide, and no girlfriend really trusts anything between her boyfriend and his girly friend after all that sneaking around. Not really. Not like Ashley does.

So is it possible for a man and woman to be friends, just friends? And with that, I mean absolutely zero sexual tension? Purely platonic? For both of them? And both of them are straight? Hmmmm…. I don't know. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY comes to mind. (Love that movie. "Pecan pieeeeeee.") But surely, it must be possible.
Bless those who can make it work. Good for them, I say!

In Rob and Jo's case I think I would have preferred to see the girlfriend make a big deal out of it. Because that's real life for ya, in most cases. It would also have made both Rob's relationship and his friendship face a bigger, and real challenge. Juicy reading material! Missed opportunities. Ashley's too-optimistic-to-be-believable reaction made the built up tension (of keeping "it's Jo actually, not Joe" a secret from her) fall a bit flat.

Lots of kudos are in order though: Mike Gayle is a formulaic author, yes, but BRAND NEW FRIEND was surprising; I didn't see the ending coming as much as I usually do with Gayle's novels, and I applaud the unpredictability of this one. I really didn't expect a lot of what happened.

Furthermore, I now do understand what is meant when people praise a book or movie to be "full of belly laughs" – I had plenty of those as I read. Deep, heartfelt laughter – this book is another feelgood novel. Once I got somewhat over Rob's cry-baby demeanor, I really did enjoy this book. Brand New Friend wasn't Gayle's best novel, but it was certainly more than good enough.

It's not often that I feel I get to know a person by the books he writes. Mike Gayle seems like such a wonderful and nice guy. He's kind of a friend to me, not a brand new one, but a dear old, loyal friend, always there for me when I need him. His books provide me with laughs, company and a general feeling of well-being.

Again. That's all I ask for.