Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The Ghosts of Belfast

The Ghosts of Belfast The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At one point, our sort-of heroine, Marie McKenna, asks our hero (as much a hero an emotionally ill serial killer can be), Gerry Fegan, “You can’t choose the places you don’t belong, but what if the places you don’t belong are only ones left to you?”

It’s a great question, put in memorable noir elegance, and much of this novel sets out to answer it. Gerry is haunted, literally, by the ghosts of the people he killed when he was one of the IRA’s top hard men, and he understands them as demanding that he put to death the men responsible.

Most of this is as fine an example of the genre as you’ll get. Neville writes with consistent skill, and he has a gift for alternating scenes of riveting violence with meditations on things as simple as the work of sanding down a piece of wood. I’m new to his work, but I’m ready to declare him the real thing – someone who can stand up to, say, Ken Bruen, with whom he is often compared.

There are some limits brought on by the genre, though. Above all, I’m never satisfied with Marie’s answer for staying in Belfast. A point is a point, but when they’re threatening your daughter and they’re willing to pay your way somewhere else, why stick around? She may not belong in Belfast, and that may be part of the legitimate local critique of the work. (That is, Belfast’s recent generations have driven away much of what might be “the good.”) But I can’t help feeling she stays more for the needs of the story than in keeping with the character Neville draws for her.

The end of this is a satisfying showdown, but the very end troubles me. I’d give a spoiler alert, but the fact that this is the first novel in a series does that for me: Fegan is a powerful character, and he bears the weight of his ghosts with a dignity (and palpable insanity) that makes him memorable. The trouble is, he’s also necessarily a doomed one. He should not survive this, yet he does, and apparently he goes on to multiple further adventures. That’s a shame. Neville has invented someone remarkable at the heart of this book. I wish he’d trusted himself to invent someone else for another one rather than violating the emotional premise of this one.

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