'Gabriel's Gift': delusions, disillusions

October 28, 2001|By Beth Kephart | By Beth Kephart,Special to the Sun

Gabriel's Gift, by Hanif Kureishi. Scribner. 223 pages. $23.

Gabriel's Gift, the sixth book of fiction by the man who brought us the Oscar-nominated screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette and the Whitbread Prize-winning The Buddha of Suburbia, is the half-hearted and only quasi-magical tale of a 15-year-old boy navigating his parents' dissolution. It is a sketch of a book, an idea more than a story. It is flat-footed and confoundingly awkward, a surprise given the considerable heft of Hanif Kureishi's reputation.

Three characters take center stage in Kureishi's wholly international London. Primary, of course, is the troubled and marginal Gabriel himself, who would be altogether ordinary were it not for the inexplicable gifts with which Kureishi endows him -- the ability to produce "real" objects by merely sitting down and drawing them, on the one hand, and the ability to hear and to be instructed by his dead twin brother's voice, on the other.

"If Archie was in his mind, Gabriel always had someone to talk to," Kureishi writes. "Together, the boys could conspire against their parents. If Gabriel didn't fidget and listened carefully he could hear Archie, for Archie looked out for his brother and was sensible and always knew what to do."

Gabriel's father, for his part, is a worn-out wannabe, a mostly forgotten and now out-of-work almost rock star who confides to his son, "It's very disturbing, the sudden feeling that your life is already over, that it's too late for all the good things you imagined would happen."

His mother, a hip-seamstress-turned-tired-pub-waitress, is equally mired in defeat -- her dreams are deflated, her long affair with Gabriel's father seems kaput, her faith in love is anything but hearty: "I think, in the end, that love is probably a young person's addiction," she tells Gabriel at one point. "I can get by without it -- I'll have to, won't I? -- but probably not without some companionship."

While Gabriel's Gift is chock-full of potentially intriguing themes -- the nature and role of the imagination, the delusions and disillusions of middle age, the place of children in imploding families, the size and shape of reconciliation -- it suffers from a harrowingly short supply of well-drawn scenes and never achieves anything approximating either momentum or transcendence.

Style is always a matter of mere taste, but I found the language to be off-putting, didactic, choppy; I could not shrug the sense I acquired early on that I was reading the truncated plot notes that the author had made to himself and not the intended final story. Here, for example, is how Kureishi delivers some of the back story early on: "Gabriel's father had left home, at Mum's instigation, three months ago. Unusually it had been several days since he had phoned and at least two weeks since Gabriel had seen him." Scenic? Lush? Emotionally engaging? Not for this one reader, at least.

The characters, too, never quite soared off the stage in my opinion. I felt condemned to stand outside their hearts and minds -- to accept what I was being told, as opposed to listening and discovering. Finally, the themes, the lessons of Gabriel's Gift feel academic, constructed, and not sufficiently inspired. "Why would anyone think they could achieve something?" Kureishi writes at one point. "Only because someone believed in them." True, true, of course it's true. But imagine how grand it might have been had Kureishi made the truth poetic.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of two memoirs. Her third, Still Love in Strange Places, is due out next spring from W.W. Norton.

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