Monday, July 13, 2009

Review of The Twelve by Stuart Neville published by Harvill Secker (2009). To be published as The Ghosts of Belfast in the US by Soho Press

Tagline: Sooner or later everybody pays

I picked up The Twelve at the weekend in a great little bookshop, The Reading Room in Carrick-on-Shannon.

McGinty smiled. ‘Well, Michael, God rest him, was getting mixed up in things that he shouldn’t have. See, times have changed. Some of us – not all, but enough of us – want Stormont to succeed. On all sides. Us, the Brits, even the Unionists. This is a different world. The bombs don’t work any more. The dissidents put an end to that with Omagh. The people don’t tolerate the violence like they used. Then 9/11 came along. The Americans don’t look at armed struggle the same way. Used to be we could sell them the romance of it, call ourselves freedom fighters, and they loved it. The money just rolled in, all those Irish-Americans digging in their pockets for the old country. They don’t buy it any more. We’ve got peace now, whether we like it or not.’

Gerry Fegan is a republican killer haunted by his murderous past. A loner by nature, since he was a child he has been able to see ghosts of the dead – first his father and then, since his release as a ‘political prisoner’, the twelve people he shot or blew up in cold blood in the name of a united Ireland. Shadowed constantly by the twelve he tries to block them out with drink, keeping his head low, drawing the monthly cheque from his phoney peace job for services rendered, as the political landscape around him changes radically; former comrades in arms reinventing themselves as democratic politicians willing to share power with past enemies. Ghosts though are only exorcised by atonement, in this case eye-for-an-eye vengeance enacted on those that participated in their untimely deaths. Teetering on the edge of insanity, Fegan seeks redemption by turning his deadly hands against those that groomed and manipulated him as a young man, thus threatening to derail Northern Ireland’s fragile peace process. All sides want Fegan’s quest stopped, not least David Campbell, a British Army undercover agent who has his own dark secrets to hide, Paul McGinty, a scheming West Belfast politician addicted to power, Bull O’Kane, the ageing leader of the republican movement, and Edward Hargreaves, the British Minister for Northern Ireland who’d sooner be in charge of any other portfolio. The only people who seemingly want him to survive are Marie McKenna and her daughter Ellen. If he can keep himself and them alive whilst releasing his ghosts then Fegan might just redeem himself.

The Twelve has attracted a lot of hyperbole in recent weeks on blogs such as Crime Always Pays and Crime Scene NI and some glowing endorsements by the likes of James Ellroy and John Connolly. The release reviews have been equally enthusiastic praising Neville for his gritty portrayal of post-conflict Northern Ireland. And the praise is well merited. The writing is taught and economical, with each chapter crafted like a toned short story and the pages just kept turning. Neville balances excellent characterization with a deep appreciation of the politics, landscape and legacy of The Troubles; how the past casts a shadow of violence and distrust that the light of democratic politics can never fully erase; how while some people and places seemingly mutate in the name of progress their real nature and the scars of personal experience are never far beneath the surface. This is helped by using real places and some of the characters and scenes echoing real life people and events. For example, Bull O’Kane is clearly a thinly veiled Slab Murphy; the riot near the start of the book is still a semi-regular occurrence often reported on the news. Despite his regrets, his inner torture, and his obvious fondness of Marie and Ellen and his desire to protect them from an unforgiving community, Fegan is an anti-hero that is difficult to have sympathy for given his murderous life. That said, his history and character are wholly believable, as is the plot, with its politician gangsters, corrupt security services, and scheming civil servants seeking to create a status quo that enables all of them to maintain their own power and covert operations. Indeed, Neville does a good job of exploring what happens after a war has all but ended, and the ongoing legacy of lies and double deals, the fear of past wrongs being exposed, and the desire to move to a new order whilst maintaining the old hegemony.

Of course, Neville is not the only novelist to portray Northern Ireland in the peace and reconciliation period, and other excellent examples include Divorcing Jack by Colin Batemen, Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson, Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee. The Twelve is a strong addition to that set, covering the situation in the post-Good Friday Agreement/post-Omagh period and into the era of the Northern Ireland Assembly and power-sharing. It is a must read for anybody who wants to understand the complexities of maintaining peace in a post-conflict society. I’m still trying to make my mind up about the novel’s end, but it’s definitely a book I’ll be recommending to friends.

Stuart Neville’s website

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