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Monday, October 25, 2010

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville, c2009 ($14)

This book was nominated for just about every book award around. It's intense, grim, and sad.

Stuart Neville's premise is unique. Take a troubled youth, turn him into an assassin, smack him down into the turbulent times of "The Troubles" in Belfast, and have redemption as the theme. That's not the unique part. Have the young man, now considerably older, having done a long stint in prison for his crimes, haunted by the twelve ghosts of the people he killed. Have his only way back to sanity be through killing the people who set up the victims.

Gerry Fegan shuffles through his days after his release from prison. The Republicans owe him. Everyone knows what he did for the cause. He's a hero to some, a man to be avoided to most, and a drunk to all who see him these days. During the nights, he is haunted to the point of madness by the screams and wailings of the ghosts who climb out of the shadows to form gray, angry visions in front of him and in his dreams. The most poignant are the "civilians," a butcher and a young mother with her baby, who were killed during a bomb blast Gerry set off.

It is while Gerry is talking to a childhood friend that the plan forms. This childhood friend grew into a fellow activist, and it is this friend who gave the order to kill one of the victims, an informer to the police. If Gerry kills his friend, will the ghost leave him alone? Yes. And so begins the retribution.

In the uneven progress of Northern Ireland towards stability, another peacetime coalition is tentatively at hand in Belfast. Fragile prosperity and quiet have returned to the former war zones. When Gerry starts killing former key players in the dissident movement, some of whom are now prosperous politicians and businessmen, it threatens to unsettle the peace talks. There are no longer any heroes on either side, just a lot of people scratching backs or burying pasts, and there certainly isn't any excess of trust to go around.

While attending his friend's wake -- the friend he had just murdered -- Gerry meets his friend's niece, a woman who has been shunned by her family for taking up with, and having a child by, one of the hated policemen. It doesn't matter that she is no longer with him, Marie is a living ghost to her family. She and her young daughter become a beacon of hope to Gerry, that all need not end unhappily for him. Is he delusional for thinking anyone would want a man with murders on his conscience and the anticipation of more killings to come? Maybe not. It is Northern Ireland. Everyone has had to deal with the twins of death and disaster.

The imputed behind-the-scenes descriptions of the former dissidents -- how the former idealism has turned into graft and corruption and how the former organization has made way for a criminal gang -- are cynical and depressing. There's an especially brutal depiction of a dog fighting scene late in the book.

This is a page-turner, no doubt. Don't start this book lightly, because you will have to finish it. It becomes a compulsion to find out if Gerry succeeds in his plan. There is a hint throughout that maybe Gerry's ghosts aren't a figment of his imagination, and you'll want to know what that's about. There's an unsettling Saki-like twist at the end.

This book is NOT for everyone. Besides the violence that splatters every bloody page, there's a nagging worry that the book is becoming something it shouldn't be. In that regard, I have mixed feelings about the ending. (Sorry, can't discuss more than that without spoilers.) Beyond a doubt, however, Neville is a powerful writer whose pitbull-like narrative style grabs and shakes the reader, and commands attention.

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