I have been meaning to read The Ghosts Of Belfast (originally published as The Twelve in Britain) for quite some time now. I actually remember reading parts of the book on the authors blog before the book was ever published, when it was still a work in progress. So why has it taken me this long to get around to reading the book?
The main reason I put off reading Stuart Neville’s debut novel is because it deals with the Troubles in Northern Ireland (although now having read it, I can say there is more to the book than that). I live in Northern Ireland myself. The author and I hail from the same county (Armagh). At forty-one years old, I can say that I have lived through most of the Troubles, having been exposed to the “Dirty War” for nearly thirty years of my life. I witnessed directly and indirectly the worst aspects of that war. Like many people in Northern Ireland, I also developed an almost macabre interest in what was going on around me. Not just the tribal politics, but also in the violence that gripped the country without mercy, and in the people who instigated and carried out that violence. I came to know the details of the situation I was living in intimately, to say the least.
When the country finally got a grip and the political violence ended however, most people in Northern Ireland lost interest in the terrible situation they had lived with for years. People, including myself, were just glad it was all over. A new sense of normality took over in peace time, and the Troubles became nothing more than a dark chapter in Northern Ireland’s past.
As part of this moving on, I refused to take any more interest in the politics or past violence and corruption of Northern Ireland. I hated to even think about it, to be honest. The whole mess just sickened me, as it did many people. That kind of evil, you just want to forget it ever happened. For me, there were other more important things going on in the world, things that had just as much effect on my small part of the world as the Troubles ever did. Things like global capitalism, the taking over of the world by corporations, out of control mass consumerism and all sorts of shady government cover ups and corruption that I couldn’t help looking into. I became, for want of a better phrase, a conspiracy theorist, and I thought globally instead of locally. I moved away from that shit eventually though, when it became too dark and depressing for me.
Now I’m a writer, and that’s about all I care about-becoming a better writer. That’s also the reason I finally picked up Stuart Neville’s novel. I wanted to see how good it was, and I also wanted to see how a local writer portrayed Northern Ireland, what details he used, how he captured the setting. As a writer, those things are of interest to me. So I put my hatred of all things “Troubles” aside and read the book. And I’m glad I did because Stuart Neville is an excellent writer, and The Ghosts Of Belfast is a great read.
The book is set mainly in Belfast in 2012, right after peace settles upon the province. It was a precarious time back then as the country struggled to hold the fragile peace together long enough for it to stick, which thankfully it did. In terms of the book, those politically turbulent times made a great setting for the story Neville had to tell.
The main character in the book is Gerry Feagan, a member of the Provisional IRA, and a man with more than his fair share of blood on his hands. After Gerry gets released from a prison sentence (per the terms of the peace agreement at the time) he begins to see the ghosts of his victims as they haunt him day and night, hence the title of the book. There are twelve ghosts haunting Gerry, and each of them wants Gerry to kill a certain person who played a role in their deaths. As Gerry kills these people fingered by his ghosts (that just doesn’t sound right), the ghosts begin to disappear. The only way for Gerry to find peace is to keep killing, quenching the thirst for revenge exhibited by the ghosts until they disappear.
Put like that, the book almost sounds supernatural in nature. There is a supernatural element to the story (the author is obviously a horror fan) but make no mistake, this book is first and foremost a thriller in the classical sense. It weaves the thriller elements of action, suspense, intrigue, political corruption and violence into a tightly told story. Although there are more than a few quieter moments in the book, the author keeps the story moving along at a fast enough pace.
As you would expect from a native of the country, the characterization and dialogue are spot on. Every character in the book was familiar to me in some way, some seeming to be based on infamous real life people who played an active role in the Troubles, or are at least composites of a few similar people. I found the dialogue to be flawless, as well as the general attitudes of the characters.
As good as the book is though, I still struggled to get through it at times, but that had more to do with my over familiarity with most things in the book. The characters, the setting, the politics etc. None of it was new to me, so it therefore struggled to hold my interest. There were also slower parts in the book concerning the main character and a love interest that I had to force myself to read through. That’s on me though. Sorry, but romance just bores the shit out of me. I’m a fucking man, whatta ya expect?!
Those two minor gripes aside, I enjoyed The Ghosts Of Belfast. The climax especially, I thought was great, and in some ways reminded me of the awesome White Ghost by Shaun Hutson. It had the short chapters and tense suspense that Hutson is a master of.
Stuart Neville is a talented writer, there is no doubt. For a debut novel, The Ghosts Of Belfast was quite an achievement. Now, when’s the movie coming out?