Monday, December 28, 2009
THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST/Stuart Neville
Disclaimer to the FTC: I received my copy of this book via Stuart Neville's Twitter short fiction contest. It is signed by the author, and I'm not giving it away or selling it no way, no how. Besides, I still haven't figured out what "Win but win" means.
The Troubles may be over and peace in Northern Ireland reached, but Gerry Fegan's troubles are far from over. During the tumult he was one of the IRA's most ruthless henchmen, killing twelve people - and now their ghosts literally haunt him. He's always had a talent - if you can call it that - for seeing the dead, but these ghosts have haunted him for seven years, keeping him awake with their screams, something only the drink can quiet. When he converses with a prominent politician, McKenna, in the bar in which he frequents, he finally discovers what the ghosts want. They don't want his remorse; they want him to kill the people who gave him the orders that resulted in their deaths.
Sometimes fiction can be a better teacher than the history books. I knew nothing of the Troubles in Northern Ireland before reading this novel, and the IRA was a far-off entity of freedom fighters who occasionally made American news. On the surface, Ireland has changed greatly: it's prosperous and there are more opportunities than ever before. Becuase no one beyond Fegan is sure who's responsible for the murders, Fegan's mission threatens to upend all the shady deals between the Unionists and the Republicans that tenuously keep peace in place. But there's no stopping Fegan once he's figured out what his ghostly companions want.
Complicating matters is Davy Campbell. An undercover agent, Campbell a man who's been on the inside so long he can't imagine ever getting out. But his handlers - whom I gathered to be British intelligence - disagree. In a way, Campbell and Fegan are one in the sense that they're both compromised men who made their living off the Troubles. In their scenes together I could feel the sympathy between them. Despite Campbell's apparent betrayal to the cause, he gets a reprieve from Neville's cold eye, for Neville's portraits of the politicians and people in power in this novel is unforgiving.
Marie McKenna, niece to the murdered McKenna, is Fegan's love interest and all the more interesting because Neville plays her as more of a lifeline for Fegan, the life jacket thrown to a man drowning in his efforts to reach redemption. His hopes for happiness and healing rest solely with her and her daughter, Ellen, though it's Ellen, through her childhood innocence, who helps him the most. She's the Ireland Fegan fought for.
The writing is taut and stripped of all banality. I really felt for Fegan - for who hasn't done things they regret? - and hoped fervently that he would find some measure of peace, if not actual happiness. Whether he gets that in the end, or has traveled too far into the abyss, is something to be pondered long after reading.