Gabriel is a tortured soul. On 1 February 1950, the 13 year-old boy’s mother walked out of the family home. He never fully comes to terms with her disappearance, convinced that her absence is only temporary. It takes Gabriel another 30 years and the death of his father to discover the truth.
Gabriel’s Lament is, initially, a painfully sensitive portrayal of love, loss and a terrible yearning – a yearning for his absent mother’s love and approval. Gabriel’s life essentially collapses as he struggles to come to terms with his mother walking out. A much older Gabriel is narrating the story and, whilst predominantly chronological, comments here and there indicate that he went through hell and back – in spite of becoming incredibly wealthy as a result of selling the film rights to his one and only novel.
Juxtaposed with the loss of one parent is the in-your-face presence of the boorish Oswald Harvey – 35 years the senior of Gabriel’s mother. He and his even more boorish friends, the Van Pelts, create a living hell for Gabriel as he tries to come to terms with his loss and the impact it has on his life.
Even after he has left home and finds himself in a series of London bedsits, Gabriel cannot emotionally settle into any particular routine of importance: a series of dead-end jobs living in seedy rooms with, usually, eccentric housemates is his lot. But no matter who comes into his life, it’s his relationship with his father and absent mother that is the core of Gabriel’s Lament. Oswald Harvey is writ large throughout – even after his death in the mid-70s, his bullying, lecturing presence remains. And so is Amy Harvey – so much so that Gabriel has some kind of breakdown in the US.
It is the sudden inherited wealth that changes the Harveys and their lifestyle – and in particular Harvey Oswald. In spite of being something of an ageing buffoon (and thrice married), Harvey is much loved by the younger Amy. But money changes it all – and the dormant, boorish snob in Harvey comes crashing to the surface. In a matter of months, Amy Oswald leaves her husband and abandons her young son.
The novel follows Gabriel from 1949 until the end of the 70s, through Christmas dinners with his father in the large house overlooking Clapham Common; bedsits and shared bathrooms in Clerkenwell, Hackney, Fulham; a brief sojourn in the US to a large home in Chiswick (from where Gabriel is writing his – this – story).
His loss is essentially bereavement without closure – the emotional scars of his abandonment manifesting in loneliness, isolation and depression. But Gabriel’s Lament as a novel is over-indulgent, with few redeeming characters. From sensitive handling of the young boy to a man in his 40s who still refers to his mother as ‘mummy’ is just too much.
Paul Bailey’s sixth novel was shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize alongside such luminaries as Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and Robertson Davies. But they all lost out to veteran author Kingsley Amis and The Old Devils.