Author: Brendan Kiely
Publisher: Margaret K McElderry Books
Pages: 304 pages
The one strong theme that you come away with after a reading of Brendan Kiely’s The Gospel of Winter is the dysfunctionality of the family of the narrator, Aiden. Reading the novel, you come away with a sense of the state of mind of this tortured young man, even as he makes a vain attempt to appear cool and nonchalant.
We get to know young Aiden at the family’s annual Christmas Eve party, held in their family home in Connecticut, USA. We come to know of the excesses that his mother has planned, as also the fact that his father, who he refers to as Old Donovan, is in Europe.
Slowly, layers of curtains are drawn aside to reveal the fragile instability of Aiden’s family. Old Donovan is influential at the world stage, yet barely registers his presence in his son’s life.
Aiden pretends to have it all together, an effect he manages only after he has snorted Adderall. He needs these chemical surges to quiet the fears and the emptiness within. The only affection he receives is from Elena, member of the staff. Elena gets him to volunteer at the church of the Most Precious Blood, hoping to keep him busy and connected to God.
It is here that he meets Father Greg, the only person who makes him feel good about himself, a man whose homilies are fun and who listens like he cares. Apart from Father Greg, Aiden longs for release, to be loved and feel wanted. One begins to sense Aiden’s need and dependence on Father Greg.
At school, Aiden is a loner with no real friends. The words, “Aiden’s a fuckhead,” are scratched on the back of a stall door in the boys’ restroom of his school. Knowing that he is an object of ridicule among his peers, he tries to shrug off his unpopularity, trying desperately to find solace in cigarettes and drugs.
At the Christmas Eve party, he finds himself bonding unexpectedly with Mark, Josie and Sophie, the children of his mother’s guests. Slowly, he is accepted into the inner circle of his new friends. And he begins to feel a renewed purpose, even though initially they do nothing better than smoking pot together.
Kiely’s characterizations are the highlight of the story.
Aiden is the kind of unreliable narrator that you feel utterly confused about. You sense his loneliness and you want to feel supportive of him. And then he admits that he thinks he looks “severely deranged when he smiles,” and you don’t know what to make of him. He admits that he has played the game where you try to flatline yourself and come back just before you tip over the edge. It is this sense of playing with danger that spells his need for affirmation from those around him.
Aiden reads Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster whose rages stem from his longing for love and belonging which are no different from the angst that Aiden suffers and the monster he is made to feel like by some people, like Cindy, his mother’s friend, and other guests at the party.
Old Donovan is too busy saving the economy to be there for his son. He is a dad who discloses to his own son that he has a mistress.
Aiden’s mother is a character unto herself. Kiely tells us, in Aiden’s voice, “Mother always found the loose stitch that could reduce a priceless carpet to a pile of threads.” These little touches suddenly reveal a character far better than the greatest descriptive passages.
Kiely’s touch is not reserved for people alone. The very town they live in becomes emblematic, a perfect setting of the kind of people that live there. As the author describes it, it is “A Catholic town that liked Mardi Gras and Easter brunch and preferred to skip the Lent in between.”
Even though it is in Aiden’s first person viewpoint, he does not hide the truth of his addictions from us and makes no attempt to make us feel sorry for him. The conflict is slow to build up, showing up only towards the end, when 80 percent of the novel is underway. Only four chapters, the story moves to a swift denouement.
Aiden is taken aback when Father Greg who never has an unkind word for him, suddenly becomes abrupt with him. We become aware that Father Greg is trying to distance himself from Aiden.
The liking we feel for Father Greg suddenly dissipates when we become aware of the reasons behind his friendliness towards Aiden. The same friendliness that he is now showing to James, a young kid who has just become an altar boy.
In the first reading, the ending left me feeling a little dissatisfied. I would have liked Aiden to hit Father Greg or lash out at him or at least to want to see him punished.
But the writing is deliberately vague at the ending, a change from the stance throughout where Aiden has never shied away from telling it like it is. Perhaps it is an indication of the sense of wounding that Aiden will always carry around with him.