Wednesday, December 09, 2009
The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville
The Ghosts of Belfast is a profoundly sad, though sometimes also funny, novel by Stuart Neville, concerned with the past and future of Northern Ireland. The "ghosts" are mostly in Gerry Fegan's head, his "followers": the specters of the 12 people he killed in his role as an IRA hit man during the troubles. The ghosts silently point out to Fegan the people who ordered him to kill them, demanding retribution (silently, except for one word spoken by one of them--more on that in a minute). What might seem like a ghost story at first, and like a revenge story as Fegan starts to obey the followers (to make them leave him alone), becomes something else as Neville skilfully moves his story forward to deal with political reality (and cynicism) in the new Northern Ireland: the new economic possibilities, the lingering violence and sectarian hatred, the transformation of the war's foot soldiers into thieves and thugs, and the personal burdens of the war's survivors. In addition to Fegan, the characters include terrorists and politicians, a Scottish soldier who's been undercover too long, and a woman and her daughter who are caught between Fagen and his targets. Plus the ghosts, of course; we get used to them as manifestations of Fagen's psyche (though they have more personality than that characterization might suggest) but Neville catches us off guard toward the end, when Fagen's plan upsets the balance of the peace, and the wrath of the living puts the killer, his followers, and everyone he has touched into a violent cauldron and a hope for redemption (always without resort to cliche or sentimentalism or melodrama. The Ghosts of Belfast updates two of the most intense novels of the Troubles, Children of the North and The Psalm Killer as well as one of the best Irish stories of the occult, Yeats's play The Words Upon the Windowpane (which has a twist at the end that has a distant relation to Neville's ghost story). The Ghosts of Belfast is not an easy read; it's intense and rewarding, one of the best books of a very good crop of recent Irish crime fiction.