The Ghosts of Belfast is the American title of Northern Irish writer Stuart Neville‘s debut novel, The Twelve, which was first published in the UK in 2009. I picked up a copy when I attended NoirCon last fall. I got to meet Mr. Neville briefly and he signed my copy and posed for a picture. You can see my write-up of that here.
Northern Ireland is a peculiar place. Whether it is a province or a country is a matter of perspective. It lacks a national flag, for example. Its citizens are British, yet can claim an Irish passport. It is about the size of Connecticut and home to 1.8 million people, a third of whom live in the greater metropolitan area of its capital and largest city, Belfast. It has long been part of the British Empire and British citizens—primarily Scots—were transplanted to the Ulster province centuries ago in order to secure the land from its original Irish inhabitants. This of course sowed the seeds of future conflicts, the most recent being the decades-long reign of violence and terror known as The Troubles. The loyalists to the British crown, i.e. unionists, were pitted against Irish nationalists, i.e. republicans, in a split along both ethnic and religious lines. All conflicts have casualties and one of the biggest is Northern Irish identity. Some see themselves as British and subjects of the Queen. Others see themselves as displaced Irish, culturally if not actually part of the Republic of Ireland to the south. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 put an end to most of the fighting and began the process of establishing a new government with hopes of ending the sectarian divide.
Like all places attempting unity after a long struggle, blanket pardons and amnesties were offered to many former combatants. Jails were emptied and past sins legally forgiven. Men who were once criminals and terrorists walk the streets. The Ghosts of Belfast begins with one such character, Gerry Fegan. Released from the infamous Maze prison as a result of the peace treaty, Fegan’s former republican bosses keep him on the payroll as a reward for his past devotion to the cause. They now serve in Stormont, the Northern Irish assembly, and know that the Gerry Fegans of the world are anachronisms. The fragile politics of the new order means the old warriors have to be shown the door. Fegan is well aware of his obsolescence and has no intention of returning to the fold or serving the cause ever again. In fact he is so wracked with guilt that he buries himself in the bottle and makes himself generally useless. His former colleagues no longer respect him but still fear him as his reputation as a stone-cold killer was well-earned. A chance encounter with the mother of one of his victims sends Fegan off on a dark and twisted path of vengeance and, he hopes, redemption.
The first thing we learn about Fegan is that he is never alone. The ghosts of his victims—twelve in number—haunt both his dreams and his waking hours. He realizes he will never be at peace until he exorcises those demons and the only solution he comes up with is to kill those who ordered him to kill in the first place. The Ghosts of Belfast, then, is a serial killer novel. Generally I hate serial killer stories but this one is different. For one thing all of Fegan’s intended victims are not innocents. They are hard men like himself. In their own eyes they were soldiers, fighting the good fight. They don’t have the empathy for their victims that is Fegan’s burden. It’s that empathy that makes Fegan sympathetic. He is genuinely remorseful about his part in the past violence. Second, The Ghosts of Belfast is really about victims, not killers. The ghosts are there to remind us that The Troubles bloodied swaths of the population. The dead left behind loved ones, families, and friends. They are gone forever but the echoes of their passing haunt the living every day.
Neville paints a rich picture of the machinations required to keep a fledgling state from collapsing. As Gerry Fegan drops more bodies the book reads like a spy thriller as the panic creeps further up the food chain. What we find out is that peace is hard. The deals that have to be made to keep the settlement from falling apart open old wounds. The conflict at least made friend and foe easier to identify. Fegan’s twisted quest for atonement lays bare all the bullshit that the politicos use to patch things together. In the end Stormont survives the crisis but the old men who once held sway over the population with their guns and bombs have to face new realities and learn to serve the needs of an emerging generation.
The Ghosts of Belfast is a gripping read. Fast-paced and suspenseful, its three hundred-plus pages fly by. It helps a bit to know a little of the history but it’s not necessary as the tension and atmosphere of the story are sufficient to keep you hooked. Gerry Fegan is a cast-off, a man without a place, but his struggle to save his soul is universal. The world is big, bad, and crazy and all of us stumble around in the darkness trying to make sense of it. Like Fegan, we seek to be whole, much as the reconciliation process in Northern Ireland seeks to bring unity to a divided people.