Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville

Haunted by his victims, a former killer seeks redemption by avenging them, in the grim, corrupt world of Northern Ireland after 'the peace.'

The Ghosts of Belfast

Soho Press, 2009, 336 pages

Fegan has been a "hard man" - an IRA killer in Northern Ireland. Now that peace has come, he is being haunted day and night by 12 ghosts: a mother and infant, a schoolboy, a butcher, an RUC constable, and seven other of his innocent victims. In order to appease them, he's going to have to kill the men who gave him orders.

As he's working his way down the list, he encounters a woman who may offer him redemption; she has borne a child to an RUC officer and is an outsider too. Now he has given Fate - and his quarry - a hostage. Is this Fegan's ultimate mistake?

Originally published as The Twelve in the UK, The Ghosts of Belfast has what you call a compelling hook for an opening:

Maybe if he had one more drink they'd leave him alone. Gerry Fegan told himself that lie before every swallow. He chased the whiskey's burn with a cool, black mouthful of Guinness and placed the glass back on the table. Look up and they'll be gone, he thought.

No. They were still there, still staring. Twelve of them if he counted the baby in its mother's arms.

He was good and drunk, now. When his stomach couldn't hold any more he would let Tom the barman show him to the door, and the twelve would follow Fegan through the streets of Belfast, into his house, up his stairs, and into his bedroom. If he was lucky, and drunk enough, he might pass out before their screaming got too loud to bear. That was the only time they made a sound, when he was alone and on the edge of sleep. When the baby started crying, that was the worst of it.

Gerry Fegan used to be a "hard man" for the IRA. He spent twelve years in The Maze. Now he's out, and everyone fears, hates, and/or respects him, because once he was a scary SOB. Now he's a middle-aged drunk drowning in guilt and alcohol. The ghosts of his victims won't leave him alone.

Fegan is the most interesting character in this book that is much more plot than character. Make no mistake, he was not a nice person. But I love a redemption arc that's well told, especially because they're so rarely well told. And this one is dark and decidedly not uplifting, because Fegan comes to realize that what the ghosts want is vengeance. They won't leave him alone until he kills the people who were behind their murders. Fegan killed them, but in each case he was acting on someone else's orders, and the rest of the book unwinds each of their tales, and the seamy underworld of a Northern Ireland that on the surface is all about peace and progress and development and an end to 'The Troubles,' but behind the scenes, just like in the former Soviet Union, it's the same bloody bastards running everything.

The ghost story angle gives the book its unique hook, but this is not a supernatural thriller. In fact, it's never made obvious whether the ghosts are real or a product of Fegan's imagination, and even to the end, the reader could interpret it either way. The twelve ghosts are a constant presence, but Fegan is such a tormented, guilt-ridden soul, it's easy to believe that they exist only in his head.

Fegan nodded and took another mouthful of stout. He held it on his tongue when he noticed the boy had risen from his place on the other side of the table. It took a moment to find him, shirtless and skinny as the day he died, creeping up behind McKenna.

The boy made a gun with his fingers and pointed at the politician's head. He mimed firing it, his hand thrown upwards by the recoil. His mouth made a plosive movement, but no sound came.

Fegan swallowed the Guinness and stared at the boy. Something stirred in his mind, one memory trying to find another. The chill at his centre pulsed with his heartbeat.

"Do you remember that kid?" he asked.

"Don't, Gerry." McKenna's voice carried a warning.

"I met his mother today. I was in the graveyard and she came up to me."

"I know you did," McKenna said, taking the glass from Fegan's fingers.

"She said she knew who I was. What I'd done. She said--"

"Gerry, I don't want to know what she said. I'm more curious about what you said to her. That's what we need to talk about. But not here." McKenna squeezed Fegan's shoulder. "Come on, now."

"He hadn't done anything. Not really. He didn't tell the cops anything they didn't know already. He didn't deserve that. Jesus, he was seventeen. We didn't have to--"

One hard hand gripped Fegan's face, the other his thinning hair, and the animal inside McKenna showed itself. "Shut your fucking mouth," he hissed. "Remember who you're talking to."

Fegan remembered only too well. As he looked into those fierce blue eyes he remembered every detail. This was the face he knew, not the one on television, but the face that twisted in white-hot pleasure as McKenna set about the boy with a claw hammer, the face that was dotted with red when he handed Fegan the .22 pistol to finish it.

What makes Fegan compelling and sympathetic is that he really does feel genuine remorse for everything he did. He was a troubled young man in a troubled time and he got thrown headfirst into a violent conflict and did what seemed natural and right at the time. As the story progresses, you really feel for him. The author throws a damsel in distress with a cute kid at him to give us more reason to want to see him prevail, but even without that you can't help wishing he could just go off and live in peace somewhere, or go back in time to before he ever became a killer and a terrorist.

The story twists and turns as Fegan's murder spree causes all kinds of shit to hit the fan. There are corrupt politicians, criminal bosses, long-undercover British informers, and officers determined to keep the peace no matter what, and Fegan is screwing with all of them, which means buried secrets and betrayals erupt as a consequence of his actions.

There is a lot of violence. People get tortured and killed, in flashbacks and in the present. It's not described in grueling, gory detail, but it's not something you'll enjoy if you don't like bloodshed and dogfights and kneecapping and other unpleasantness.

It's a hard novel about a hard man who just wants the voices in his head to stop screaming at him. I recommend it unless this sort of book is just totally not your cup of tea.

Verdict: Give this one a shot. It's definitely not boring and not badly written, Recommended for anyone who likes fast-moving, violent crime/political thrillers.
Tags: books, reviews, stuart neville

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