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August 30, 2013

Book Notes - Ciaran Collins "The Gamal"

The Gamal

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Ciaran Collins' The Gamal is a startlingly original debut novel, a funny yet heartbreaking take on Romeo and Juliet highlighted by its unique, unreliable, and unforgettable narrator.

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In his own words, here is Ciaran Collins's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, The Gamal:


The Gamal is a tragicomic novel narrated by twenty-five year old Charlie. Charlie's odd; he likes to sleep upside down, he says inappropriate things at funerals and he thinks books are for losers. Some people call him the ‘gamal', an Irish word meaning idiot. But Charlie is far brighter than people think and behind his fool's mask is a young man who sees more and knows more, and does more, than they can possibly imagine.

Even as a child, everyone kept their distance from Charlie, and that suited him fine. Then, through an act of extraordinary courage and kindness, childhood sweethearts, Sinéad and James become a huge part of his life. They see much more in Charlie than the village idiot role the people of his village ascribe to him.

Sinéad is an amazing singer and a songwriter of real promise, while James is an accomplished musician. Charlie, stealing records from his mother, introduces them to a world of music. Sinéad's talent develops and grows, as does the depth of Charlie's friendship with the young couple. But now, those halcyon days are in the past. Something bad has happened. We know this because Charlie has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is reluctantly telling us this story at the behest of his psychiatrist. Dr Quinn thinks the process of writing a thousand words a day may help him.

And this is the story he tells. It's the story of three young people who attempt to find the greatness in themselves, in a world that doesn't want to know. It's a story where young people are forced to think about some big questions; what friendship is, what loyalty is, what envy is, what it means to be different, what it means to ‘fit in', what music is, and whether there should be a limit to what someone will do for love.

Charlie mentions over fifty pieces of music that are significant in their lives. He tells us to look up the lyrics on the internet and to write them out on the blank lines he kindly provides in the book. He explains that he couldn't quote the songs himself, as he'd have to pay the artists a fortune for the privilege! Here are the pieces of the music:


"Out on the Weekend" – Neil Young

The melancholy tune encompasses the vague sense of resignation that comes eventually, after periods of great loss and longing. The lyrics capture the state of mind, somewhat, of our narrator, Charlie. The character singing the song is doing all he can to move on, but he can't. The memory of the unnamed woman of the song is everywhere in his thoughts. As the chorus begins, "See the lonely boy…"


"The Gulf of Araby" – Katell Keineg

This, I think, is a masterpiece by little-known artist Katell Keineg. Keineg's voice has an otherworldly quality to it, which makes the anger in her voice in the chorus quite disconcerting. In the book Charlie disparages the song because it affects him so deeply!

I once went to see Ketell Keineg in a bar in Dublin. I got there early as I thought there would be a big crowd. I'd just moved to Dublin and knew no one, so I went there by myself. I got a pint and got a good seat right in front of the stage (which was just a slightly raised platform). Oddly, the place hadn't filled up as I'd expected it to and on came Katell. It was a fairly large performance room with a very small audience, all at the back of the room, except for one weirdo –me! – sitting right up in front of Katell. I felt like a stalker! I couldn't even look at her, I was that close! I got a second pint after a few songs and watched the rest of the performance from the bar! She's brilliant live, by the way.


"Ag Críost an Síol" – Seán Ó Riada (composer)

Seán Ó Riada is an Irish composer who brought Irish traditional music to a much wider audience in his native Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s. He had a very popular TV show on RTÉ television, but tragically, the tapes were destroyed. My father introduced me to his music. "Ag Críost an Síol" is a haunting tune which was written for the Catholic Mass. In the book Charlie remembers the affect the tune had on Sinéad when they were children.


"We All Stand Together" – Paul McCartney

Another masterpiece from McCartney, and fitting that the tune brings the star-crossed lovers of the novel, Sinéad and James, together for the first time, when they were children. He can write in any style of music it seems, and this is one of the most beautiful children's songs I've heard. I loved the music video too as a young child.


"Country Fair" – Van Morrison

This is a very emotional song written by a young Van Morrison, looking back on childhood. Its appeal to Charlie, therefore would be inevitable, and he has a particular memory of how Sinéad used to get the words wrong when she sang one line of the song, thus revealing something interesting about herself. She incorrectly sings the line as, ‘Sad lifetimes slipping through your hand."


"Ar Éireann ní Neosfainn Cé hí"– Unknown

I love the Makem and Clancy version of this traditional love song, about a beautiful and mysterious young woman. The ancient tune is also in the traditional music of Romania, interestingly. It's a tune that will stop you on your tracks.


"Blue Moon" – Elvis Presley (written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart)

The historic Sun Records recording of this is stunning and would fit in perfectly in Charlie's mother's old records collection. This would have been a favourite of theirs, reflecting how much Sinéad and James meant to each other. "Blue moon, you saw me standing alone . . ."


"Pennyroyal Tea" – Kurt Cobain

This is a devastatingly sad song, the air of which, for me, goes straight to the human heart of existential angst. Charlie tells us that he witnessed a miracle when Sinéad summoned the same feelings Cobain once had, and expressed them through her performance of this song.


"You Are Not Alone" – Michael Jackson

This is a popular love song, and I imagined, as its popularity would have been contemporaneous with Sinéad and James' teenage years, that it would have meant a lot to the young couple. It plays a central role in a scene where James breaks the rules of the college he's in, in order to express his love for Sinéad.


"Boolavogue" – written by Patrick Joseph McCall

This is a traditional rebel song, about the men who died in the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. It is rousing, while at the same time, melancholy. It's a beautiful melody, and those songs are part of the musical landscape that Sinéad and James would have inhabited. James learns this one from a friend from County Wexford. It's the anthem of that county.


"The Ould Triangle" – (written by Dominic Behan)

This was written by the brother of Irish writer Brendan Behan for his play The Quare Fellow. It's sung quite commonly nowadays during a "session" (a night in a pub where people will play traditional music and sing songs).


"Táimse im' Chodladh" – (Unknown)

This is a sean-nós (old style) song –a type of ancient and ornate unaccompanied singing which very few Irish people today practice or listen to. Brilliant contemporary sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionard has recorded a lovely version of this.


"Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie" – Bob Dylan

When I was a teenager I thought I was possibly the deepest and coolest person that ever lived because I knew every word of "Numb" from U2's The Edge. James would have been equally vain in reciting Dylan's "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie." He does so on Cape Clear island though, and if the kind of life that Dylan espouses in that poem is available in the Ireland of today, then perhaps it's nowhere more so than on the amazing little islands off the Irish coast, of which Cape Clear is one.


"Love, Oh Love" – Lionel Richie (In Irish!)

This is a rather soppy pop song, but in my experience teaching in Irish colleges, and in speaking to teachers of teenage girls, this song strikes a chord with many of them, and so appears in that capacity in the novel. I think it speaks to their idealism and hopefulness.


"Fairytale of New York" – The Pogues (by Shane McGowan)

A tour de force of song-writing, Shane McGowan's Christmas song of the ‘what-could-have-beens', recriminations and sadness of an aging couple now down on their luck, goes straight to the heart. In the book, Sinéad and James try to emulate the song-writing prowess by composing a dialogue between a couple who are now dead, and are looking back at where it all went wrong for them.


"Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" – Ralph Vaughan Williams (composer)

This is a stunning piece of music. The characters in the book speak about the sense of travelling or "gliding" somewhere that it gives the listener.


"Moonlight Sonata" – Ludwig Van Beethoven (composer)

James plays this on the piano, and Sinéad remembers something an old Jewish pianist said in a documentary she had seen in school. She said that if Hitler had ever listened to Moonlight Sonata, he would not have been able to do the terrible things he did. This idea would certainly appeal to Sinéad, who believes in the transformative power of art and music.


"High Summer" – Van Morrison

Sinéad loves what's communicated in High Summer's chorus, even though it's just a musical refrain with no words. The verses tell the story, vaguely, of somebody who does not quite fit in, suffers because of this and is in a state of some kind of mental anxiety, all of which she experiences herself.


"Twistin' the Night Away" – Sam Cooke

Another one from Charlie's mother's record collection, Sinéad and James would jive to this in happier times.


"This Woman's Work" – Kate Bush

Kate Bush is such an original artist that Sinéad would inevitably have been influenced by her. Charlie, the narrator, explores the seemingly incongruous ability Sinéad has to conjure the feelings of a mother's grief, eventually wondering if it could be some kind of genetic memory, stretching back through the ages to our primal origins.


"Carraig Aonair" – written by Conchubhar Ó Laoghaire

Another beautiful sean-nós song, this one written by Conchubhar Ó Laoghaire, is a lament he wrote after his fishermen sons died at sea. Carraig Aonair is literally translated to ‘lone rock' but refers to what is today referred to as Fasnet Rock. It's a small island rock near the aforementioned Cape Clear, where our trio in the novel spend a summer holiday learning Irish music and language.


"Bad" – U2

U2 were a major presence in my teenage years in the ‘90s. Growing up in Ireland, we didn't have much to be proud of internationally (-we were best known for drunkenness, having a terrible economy, paedophile priests and the IRA-) so U2 gave us all a little bit of a lift. I think Sinéad and James, like many young people, would have been drawn to the heart-on-sleeve sincerity of some of their music. This is one of the great U2 songs. In one of her very first public performances, Sinéad uses a refrain from the song to accompany someone who's playing piano, to stunning, bar-stilling effect.


"The Banks of my Own Lovely Lee" – written by Dick Forbes and J.C. Flanahan

The anthem of County Cork, it's in the voice of an exile longing to be at home in Cork.


"Molly Malone" – Unknown

The anthem of Dublin, it's a folksong about a beautiful fishmonger who dies young. Some say it's actually about a prostitute, but I don't think we'll ever know for sure.


"Time After Time" – Cyndi Lauper

I've a good few older siblings so I was exposed to plenty eighties music growing up. I could imagine Sinéad and James practicing this beautiful and wonderfully crafted song. Thematically, of course, it was perfect too, as it's a lover pledging her undying love for her sweetheart, despite difficult times.


"Tangled Up In Blue" – Bob Dylan

One of Dylan's many masterpieces, this is a song full of striking imagery and a voice that tells its meandering story in the first person and the third person alternately. There's a strong sense of a lost love, the interconnectivity of all people and their emotions as well as the human will to ‘keep on keepin' on, like the bird that flew, tangled up in blue.' Sinéad and James try to learn from Dylan's combined mastery of music and words.


"Coming Around Again" – Carly Simon

Another one I'd have been exposed to in the eighties by my older siblings. It has such an air of domestic family life and great nostalgia that it was perfect that Sinéad should associate it with a rare happy childhood memory of her family. She wonders how the song became part of this specific memory in her mind.


"In Dreams" – Roy Orbison

Here's another artist Sinéad would have been eager to learn from. "In Dreams" shows his artistry and stunning vocal range in a beautiful song.


"Don't Look Back" – John Lee Hooker

This is such a beautiful song, the sentiment of which made so much more endearing by John Lee Hooker's ‘lived in' voice. There's a great compassion in his words of wisdom and advice. It makes Sinéad, James and Charlie ponder the birth of the blues – the world that it sprang to life in – and the healing power of music.


"Silver Threads among the Gold" – written by Eben E. Rexford and H. P. Danks

This is an oldie. An old man expresses his love for his wife who will "always be young and fair to me." The two versions the characters listen to are John McCormac's and Finbarr Furey's. Sinéad and James sing the song at a wedding in a pivotal scene in the novel.


"River" – Joni Mitchell

One of Joni Mitchell's masterpieces, here she subverts the "Jingle Bells" melody and takes it somewhere dark and full of regrets. It's Christmas, the landscape is frozen over and the singer tells us, "I wish I had a river I could skate away on." Sinéad listens to it over and over at a crises point in her life.


"Solsbury Hill" – Peter Gabriel

I always find something kind of heroic about this tune. I think it's about taking the knocks and getting up again, succeeding in the face of seemingly impossible odds. The first line nails it: "Climbing," up the hill he sings, he sees the city lights. After a period of struggle and toil, he comes to a point where "time stood still" and he sees things clearly. A new beginning is finally possible. The tune is one of optimism ultimately I think, but one that's been hard won, expressing feelings that words struggle to convey. It appears in the novel at a time when, for Sinéad and James, anything seems possible.


"Spiegel im Spiegel" – Arvo Part (composer)

The trio discuss music which has a ‘healing' quality, this being first on the list. The simple repetition of phrases on the piano, wandering off and returning always to an A note, behind it the violin (or cello, depending on the version) guiding the way home, to sublime effect.


"The Healing Game" – Van Morrison

Many people think Van the Man is cantankerous, but the enormity of his compassion comes through in his music, not least in "The Healing Game."


"Love" – John Lennon

Speaking of compassion, have a listen to this one. In the book, James plays it on the piano and Sinéad sings.


"Madame George" – Van Morrison

They speak about songs that return over and over again to a chord, which makes Sinéad think of this work of genius that Van Morrison created when he was barely into his twenties. There's an unmistakable air of nostalgia and great affection for the mysterious Madame George and the care-free time in the singer's life that she represents to him.


"For All We Know" – Nina Simone

There are a couple of wonderful performances by Nina Simone of this song and of course for a young female vocalist in the making, Nina Simone would be a huge influence for Sinéad. What Sinéad loves about this piece in particular is the tempo of Simone's piano playing, which changes throughout the song and is at times, at complete variance with her measured stunning singing.


"Sam Hall" – Johnny Cash (songwriter unknown, traditional)

Charlie has a bit of fun with this one, admiring the (albeit ironic) anti-social message in the song, as only Charlie would.


"Bonnie James Campbell" - (songwriter unknown, traditional)

An old Scottish folksong where a young woman laments her husband's tragic death, "Home came his good horse, but never came he." I quote some of the song in the book as I find the rhythm and the language of it slightly unsettling, and hopefully the reader will too, especially as a young man called James is a central protagonist in the novel. Incidentally, the piece has some has striking similarities to "Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire", a famous Irish poem from the 18th Century, lamenting a young man's murder in Inchigeela, County Cork.


"Today" – Randy Sparks

This is a rather sentimental song where the singer expresses his joy at the pleasures in his life ‘today.' It is sung by Sinéad though, at a time when her life and her mind are in a state of chaos.


"If It Be Your Will" – Leonard Cohen

Sinéad sings this during a mass (a church service) in a hospital. All who hear it are suffering in their own way, I guess, not least Sinéad herself.


"Country Feedback" – REM

A great REM song this, James sings it among his friends out on Cape Clear island.


"The Two Sisters" - (songwriter unknown, traditional)

This is an eerie folksong with a certain nursery rhyme quality to it that makes it all the darker. It tells the story of two sisters, and one drowns the other. The story gets progressively more surreal and a fiddle is made from the dead girl's body and "the only tune the fiddle would play, was /Oh the dreadful wind and rain." American composer Nico Muhly captures the haunting nature of it with his amazing modern arrangement.


"Percy's Song" – Bob Dylan

"Percy's Song" would never have been created had Bob Dylan never heard "The Two Sisters". The melody is very similar, as is the chorus: "Turn, turn to the rain and the wind, turn, turn turn again." In the song, Dylan describes a court-case, which brings a certain memory of another court-case back for Charlie.

"Sinéad played us a Bob Dylan song once that she said was like it. About a fella whose friend killed people by accident in a car crash. Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind, it goes. He says he stood up fierce slow cos the room was gone funny. That's shock. You'd know what that meant if you were at the court case I was at. Everyone who was there would know. People stood up slow after hearing parts of it. Knees go shaky isn't it?"


"Valentine Melody" – Tim Buckley

One of my all-time favourite male singers, Tim Buckley (father of course, of the brilliant Jeff) had a voice that could convey total vulnerability and tenderness and yet total power and control in the same phrase. This is one I imagined Sinéad would like.


"Black" – Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder is another outstanding male vocalist. Sinéad tries to learn from him by imitating his extraordinary singing of the dark and brilliant "Black".


"This Is Not A Song" –The Frank and Walters

These guys are from my home town of Cork. They had a few hits which took them all around the world. Our trio in the novel go to one of their sold out homecoming gigs.


"I Will Always Love You" – Dolly Parton

Parton's song-writing skills can be seen here at their best. There's a little more tenderness too in her own (the original) version of it, which suits the sentiment of the song. This would have been on one of Charlie's mother's records I guess –a love song for Sinéad and James.

Incidentally, like Charlie, much of the music I'd have come across would have been from my mother. She had a decent enough record collection and comes from a very musical family, the Hurleys, many of whom live in Canada today, as all but one of her six siblings emigrated there in the 1960s. I'm sure her musical tastes and consequently her record collection, would have been influenced by what her siblings were listening to on the other side of the Atlantic.


"Lés Beatitudes" – The Sirin Ensemble

If there was ever a film made of The Gamal I would like this piece to feature. It's written by Vladimir Martynov and I know it only because my sister Úna, who is an artist, is fond of choral music and went to a festival in Cork city where the Sirin Ensembe were playing. She bought their CD and I guess I robbed it off her.


"El Malei Rachamim" (Holocaust version) – Jewish Religious traditional

I think it was Cantor Moshe Haschel who performed this with a choir on the BBC televised Holocaust memorial which my mother recorded. It's an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary piece of music. I imagined Sinéad having the video and wearing out the tape from playing it so often.


"Veruyu" (Credo) – Slavonic Orthodox Liturgy chant

Like a lot of the music I listened to in my teenage years, I've Irish DJ Donal Dineen to thank for bringing this piece to my attention. He used to play King's College Cambridge Choir's version of this, which is amazing. In the book, the sound of this song sweeps through the village of Ballyronan, emanating from the room where Sinéad, James and Charlie play their records.


"I Was Young When I Left Home" – Bob Dylan

A baby crying makes Charlie think of this song, because Sinéad used to say that the way Dylan plays guitar in it was soothing, because "it was like a baby crying." Charlie gets a little upset himself then. This is quite close to the end of the book, so I'll say no more about it in case you may want to read it. I hope you do!

It wasn't my intention that Dylan would feature in the novel's dénouement but it doesn't surprise me that he did. We find it hard to conceive of our lives without certain people who have played key roles. Usually it's loved ones –your partner, your children, your parents, your siblings or some other key relative or friend. I think artists or works of art can become intrinsic to the fabric of the selves we create too. For me, Bob Dylan is such an artist, his songs such works of art.

I find it hard to imagine the world, or my understanding of the world, and life, had Bob Dylan never existed. He's a ‘force of nature' someone said (or maybe it was himself!) and indeed he is. And that, for me, more than anything else, is what humanity has going for it. Every once in a while, a society will throw forth a human being whose creativity and love is so strong and irrepressible that the society that created him/her will never be the same again. Such people are rare but they've always been there and always will –writers, poets, playwrights, singers, composers, painters, sculptors, in a word, artists. Young Sinéad is an artist in the becoming, and she has great artists like Bob Dylan to show her the way. We all do.


Ciaran Collins and The Gamal links:

the author's website

Guardian review
Herald Scotland review
Irish Independent review
Irish Times review
Publishers Weekly review

Hot Press interview with the author
Irish Central profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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