This debut novel begins in Belfast in 1995, at which time armed gangs in Northern Ireland had been fighting for years over the fate of the six counties. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) wanted a united Ireland, and the Loyalist Protestants wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. As the author reports, when the two groups weren’t occupied murdering each other, they vented their frustration by deploying their well-honed violent techniques on their own. 1995, the author writes, was worse generally for “young Catholics who annoyed the IRA and young Prods who irritated the Loyalists.”
The mayhem impacts the life of the narrator, Jacky, after his best friend Titch was severely beaten by Rocky McGee, leader of the local gang of Loyalist paramilitaries. Titch was mentally a bit slow, and had a compulsion to steal sweets from the local stores. Usually Titch’s mom settled up with sympathetic local shop owners behind Titch’s back, so there would be no trouble. But then Titch stole from McGee’s father’s store, and worse yet pushed the father down when confronted. Titch was dragged out of his house by McGee and his boys armed with baseball bats, and ended up in the hospital from the vicious beating he received. Titch was always afraid after that, not even able to feel safe at home, and Jacky was incensed. When Jacky, working his shift as a bartender, heard McGee in the bar bragging about what he did to Titch, Jacky punched him. Needless to say, Jacky was next, ending up in the hospital as well, with scars inside and out that never left him. Warned to leave Belfast, Jacky left for London.
The second part of the book takes place in London, where Jacky also gets a job as barman, and there meets Eve, a girl he falls for. But the scars from the encounters with McGee have changed him. Physically, they made him stand out. As Jacky explains:
“People see your damage and aren’t sure how you got it, whether for being a bully or a victim. Either way, it makes them a little uneasy. Their eyes climb aboard the scars and travel down the tram lines.”
Psychologically, Jacky is also scared, eaten up by the way he had lied and begged for his life when he was frightened by the bullies. He remarked, “I hadn’t yet realised that one of violence’s slyest tricks is to make you feel dirty for having been on the wrong end of it.” [This is an emotion with which women who have been sexually abused often identify as well.]
Jacky begins a relationship with Eve, but the risk of love scares him as much as the gangs, albeit differently. On your own, he mused, you have nothing to lose: “You can hang on to the bare fact of nothing and feel a kind of security. Once you have something, you’re always in bloody freefall.”
He also can’t move forward because his experiences in Belfast continue to obsess him. When he hears of more bad news from home, he decides it is time to put a stop to McGee and his reign of terror.
Discussion: The title refers to Belfast, which, like other cities torn by violence, becomes a factory for tit-for-tat revenge over the ghosts of the dead, consuming its inhabitants. Though Jacky has a chance to start a new life in London, he must first let go of his old life, if he only can. He gets assistance from a couple of dei ex machina at the end, making the story a bit less tragic. But one can’t help but wonder how it would have turned out without those lucky and not-at-all assured developments.
Evaluation: Books set in war-torn places with their tragic repercussions for those inheriting the fight, such as in Northern Ireland or in Israel, can be terribly depressing to read. But the author has a flair for writing, and she tells a good story. I can’t say I “enjoyed” reading this book, but I appreciated it.
Published in Great Britain by 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2020