The Death and Life of Gabriel Phillips
Veteran police officer Andy Myers arrives on the scene to find eight-year-old Gabriel Phillips lying dead in a pool of blood in his bedroom. Andy knows the boy, for Gabriel is the son of Loraine, with whom Andy is having an affair. Loraine is separated from her husband, John, and the two share custody. Gabriel is the only child Andy has ever cared about, even though he has a son of his own who he has never wanted to meet.
John opens his apartment door for Andy while in the midst of a phone conversation. No hysteria, no tears, no shaking or yelling. The father of the dead child simply waves Andy in and points him toward the boy’s bedroom with a casual “he’s in there.” John’s relaxed reception does not prepare Andy for the scene awaiting him. And therein lies the problem. Though John’s never-ending peaceful countenance is necessary for the conflict to form and grow, it is also the very thing that renders him a less-than-believable character.
Is there a Christian so in tune with God’s peace that he would not demonstrate emotion over the accidental death of his child? John Philips is such a man. As the only Christian protagonist in THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GABRIEL PHILLIPS, John’s level of tranquility simply does not render him a realistic character. Even Jesus wept when he heard his good friend Lazarus had died. I think any parent or anyone who loves a child would have a tough time relating to John.
For Andy, the only emotion stronger than the pain of seeing Gabriel dead is the rage of witnessing John’s apparent nonchalance demonstrated throughout the initial tragedy and all that ensues. John says he is at peace because he knows Gabriel is in Heaven with Jesus. When falsely accused of Gabriel’s murder, he refuses to let his attorneys defend him. In every appeal, and while being sentenced to death, he maintains his serene composure, stating only that he did nothing wrong and trusts his life to God. Again, I think most readers would question this extraordinary behavior. Is trusting in God the same as doing nothing? Wouldn’t God want a falsely accused man to at least let his attorney defend him?
Despite my concerns about the believability of John’s character, I thought THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GABRIEL PHILLIPS had an interesting storyline and certainly excelled in character development, particularly with Andy. Gabriel’s death haunts him, his affair fills him with guilt, and his obsession with John’s faith drives him to the breaking point. He is consumed with the desire to ensure that John pays dearly for this precious loss of life, certain he’ll find peace in John’s demise. However, as every milestone is reached --- John getting arrested, sentenced and facing execution --- peace is the farthest thing from Andy’s soul.
A powerful beginning and an unexpected ending make the first and last chapters the most riveting. Decent imagery, dialogue and conflict help move the story along. Those considering this book should keep in mind that the dialogue is laden with mild cursing and using God’s name in vain. Some may take offense, despite the novel’s Christian message.
Reviewed by Susan Miura on November 5, 2008