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So says our narrator, and it is by just such a circuitous route that he guides us through The Gamal, rifling through the bins of small town life for its forgotten detritus, turning up the infant triumphs and teenage shames, petty jealousies, extinguished dreams, casual and none-so-casual cruelties that lie long buried in the silt beneath.
What is a ‘Gamal’, exactly? Our narrator is a Gamal – except in fact he’s not. He is not what people think he is. He acts the halfwit, the fool, – the ‘gamal’ -, but he’s the sharpest of the lot. Too sharp, perhaps: extraordinary abilities, kept well hidden, could be part of an alluded to personality disorder – and while his foolishness is carefully cultivated, a notable oddness to his outsider’s perspective is not. He is a compellingly unreliable narrator, his meanderings littered with hints that things may not be quite as they are written and exhortations that we take note of the small things. He keeps us on our toes.
This book, we are told, is a writing project undertaken at the behest of our narrator’s psychiatrist, part of a healing process following a mysterious traumatic event, the truth of which is the nub around which the whole thing pivots. Collins exploits this conceit to play with structure, piling in short, seemingly unconnected segments with oblique headers, inserting medical textbook or dictionary definitions, writing-lesson-rambles and court transcripts. He gives most unwriterly reasons for these insertions, professing only to a desire to bump up his assigned weekly word count, inserting pictures in preference to bothering with pages of descriptive prose. These tricks could be something of an irritant but they are not the innocuous fillers they purport to be and we cannot afford to pass over them. Nothing here is irrelevant, whatever its author may claim. Early on we learn to read detective-style, scanning everywhere for clues to the real story, the tragedy around which he so tantalisingly skirts, a tragedy of jealousy and pride and envy and self-regard, of the pack-instinct harshness of a closed community towards those who do not fit in.
“Things they knew nothing about sober, suddenly they knew everything about. All wise nodding, serious pursed lips and chin rubbing. Backslapping affirmations and knee-slapping laughs.”
The writing style Collins lends to his avowedly anti-books writer is one of abrupt, quickfire sentences and lots of reported dialogue employing a direct transcription of local vernacular, with all the bad grammar, awkward phrasing and liberal peppering of ‘likes’ included. This deliberately unbeautiful use of language makes for a lumpy read, but is nevertheless powerful in building a unique and memorable voice and a tense, close atmosphere.
There is something about this doggedly literal approach to language that is strongly evocative of teenager-dom with its passionately black-and-white reading of the world. This is highly relevant, as what it is to be on the cusp of adulthood, the aching piquancy in the contrast between all that we could be when we are not quite full grown and the reality of what we then become is at the emotional core of the book, powering the Romeo and Juliet-esque tragedy that spirals darkly into Juliet’s revenge.
Or so it could appear. For all our close observation and gathering of clues, the ambiguity of the ending remains balanced on a hair’s breadth, ultimately up for us to decide. The journey to get there at times feels like something of a scramble; but like many a scrambled, roundabout journey, is all the richer for it.
“You won’t like me. Mainly because you know I don’t care whether you like me or not.”
The Gamal was published in April 2013. Buy it from Foyles.