Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Just because the era known as the Troubles is ‘officially’ over doesn’t mean that the resentments and bitterness have also passed. The memories are still fresh for plenty of people, and the Troubles still play a role in UK/Irish life. So does the trauma of that time. Let’s take a closer look at how that works today and turn the spotlight on Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast, the first of his Belfast novels.
As the novel begins, former IRA fighter Gerry Fagen has recently been released from prison. He’d like to put his life back together and have some sort of future, but he is haunted, quite literally, by the ghosts of twelve people he killed. They won’t leave him in peace, and the only way he can drown them out is with a bottle. But he doesn’t want to live that way, either. So, he decides to listen to what they want, and what they want is revenge. They want him to kill the people responsible for their deaths. At first, Fagen doesn’t want any more killing. But the ghosts make matters worse for him until he finally gives in to their demands. And that will mean killing former allies.
The first two murders go off without Fagen being suspected. Bit by bit, though, his former IRA compatriots guess that he is responsible. If the word gets out that one of their own is the killer, this will hurt the Republicans in the ongoing peace process. It would suit them much better if the British, the Loyalists, or the Ulster Constabulary could be blamed. But of course, those two groups aren’t going to accept that explanation so easily.
In the meantime, Fagen has fallen for a woman named Marie Mckenna. She’s considered an outcast among the IRA and other Republicans, because she married a Belfast police officer. They’re divorced now, but that makes no difference to those who are convinced she betrayed them and the cause. It’s not long before Fagen’s former IRA associates find out about Marie and her daughter, Ellen, and decide to get to Fagen through her.
Fagen’s not stupid, though. He knows that Marie and Ellen are in danger. Now, he’ll have to find a way to keep them as safe as possible, while he tries to stay alive himself. And that won’t be easy, as the former IRA fighters, who want to take care of ‘the Fagen problem’ themselves, are both skilled and ruthless. There’s also the police, and a British mole who’s infiltrated the Republicans, who are interested in the case. And that’s to say nothing of the ghosts who continue to insist that he finish the work he started.
The story is Gerry Fegan’s story in a lot of ways. Quite a bit of it is told from his perspective (third person, past tense), so we learn a lot about him. As a child, he joined the IRA, because he saw it as the only way to escape the poverty, bigotry and worse that he suffered as a Catholic person growing up in Belfast. He rose in the ranks and became respected. He also became an accomplished killer. He’s very much aware of what he is and was, too, and asks for no sympathy for what he’s done. The only thing he wants now is for the ghosts to leave him alone so that he can finally know some peace.
Fagen’s story is told against the backdrop of modern Belfast. It’s no longer the war-torn landscape that it was during the height of the Troubles. But there’s still plenty of resentment and worse on both sides. And the old-guard IRA aren’t sure where they will fit in in the new sociopolitical structure. Some characters, like Paul McGinty, have become politicians. They’ve adapted to the new order. Others, like Bull O’Kane, cling to the old ways. Neither group has ‘clean hands’ though.
And that’s another aspect of this novel. There are no innocent characters. Every single one has betrayed, hurt, and much worse. In that sense, it’s a very noir story. And in these characters, Neville outlines the various forces at work during the Troubles and since. There was corruption and awful violence on all sides. Even those who are now sick of the blood and the killing are well aware that they, too, are guilty. And, yet, Neville doesn’t depict them as purely evil. Several of them, including Fagen, are complex characters.
There is a great deal of violence in the novel. Some of it is truly ugly, ‘peek through the fingers’ sort of violence. Readers who dislike brutality (and explicit language) in their crime fiction will want to know that both are very much a part of the story. In that sense, it’s an ugly story, but the Troubles were ugly times, and Neville doesn’t shy away from that.
The timeline of the story is more or less chronological, although there are a few parts told in flashback. That strategy is mostly used to explain how the ghosts met their ends, and why they want one or another particular person dead. Readers who prefer a more linear story will notice this.
The Ghosts of Belfast is an uncompromising, gritty look at the impact of the Troubles on Northern Ireland, Belfast, and on one man in particular. It takes place against a backdrop of a society trying to put itself together and live in the modern world, but one that is still haunted by the events of the past. But what’s your view? Have you read The Ghosts of Belfast? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 16 April/Tuesday, 17 April – The Face of a Stranger – Anne Perry
Monday, 23 April/ Tuesday, 24 April – The Rules of Backyard Cricket – Jock Serong
Monday, 30 April/Tuesday 1 May – Finding Nouf – Zoë Ferraris