Review: The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville

The premise of The Ghosts of Belfast, which I listened to in a superb narration by Gerard Doyle, is engaging and the narrative realistic in the way it depicts Gerry Fegan’s journey through one of the modern world’s most troubled political contexts. Fegan is an IRA killer released early from prison (in concessions provided to the Republicans as part of the peace process). He is haunted, literally, by the ghosts of twelve people he killed in various incidents while an active IRA member and the ghosts want him to kill the people who ordered or were otherwise responsible for their deaths. The process of Fegan tracking down the various activists, politicians and priests he is to kill allows for the revelation of his personal back story and, by extension, a potted history of ‘The Troubles’ while simultaneous current events depict how various members of the community are trying to find a place for themselves in their new, precariously peaceful society.

These days the crime genre produces some of the most insightful fiction about our society and this seems to be particularly true in the context of the world’s social and political ‘hot spots’ for want of a better term. In this sense Neville’s achievement is outstanding: mercilessly depicting the hypocrisy and self-interest that motivated most of the political and paramilitary activities in Northern Ireland rather than high-minded religious or political beliefs many participants would like to have us, and probably themselves, believe.

For me though The Ghosts of Belfast suffers in a story-telling sense. My main problem is that it does not offer a single positive or light note amidst its unrelenting grimness and violence. This singular tone gave the book a fairly hopeless inevitability and by the last couple of hours, which was basically a slaughter fest of the most repulsive kind, I had lost track of, and interest in, who was being horribly killed and why.

I also struggled with the characterisations. The men are all fueled by testosterone, hatred and narcissism in varying degrees and engage in endless coercion, torture and murder with a total lack of humanity. Even their leisure activity is the most repugnant form of ‘entertainment’ I can imagine. The women (of whom there are very few) are equally one-dimensional saintly mothers (and one thieving whore). The one exception to this is Marie McKenna who has defied community leaders for many years but in the end she stopped short of being the kind of interesting figure that compels me to keep reading. She really was not much more than an adjunct to the male characters in the story and some of her actions, particularly the ease with which she chose to believe Fegan’s lies and promises, stretched the bounds of my credibility. Ultimately there was really no one I could care about or empathise with or be hopeful for and I’m afraid, perhaps mistakenly, I do look for these elements if a book is to be a fully satisfying reading experience.

I like books that have light and shade, highs and lows, a range of emotional levels and here I just did not find any of these elements. Perhaps our anti-hero’s efforts to silence the voices in his head were supposed to provide them or perhaps the author doesn’t find such things necessary. Either way an entire book about a killer who demonstrates his regret at his previous killings by carrying out more killings was neither vaguely sympathetic nor unpredictable enough to really sustain my engagement for 11 hours.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 2.5/5

Narrator Gerard Doyle; Publisher Audible Inc [2009]; Length 11 hours 2 minutes

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The Ghosts of Belfast (released as The Twelve in the UK) has been reviewed in mostly far more glowing terms than I have done above at Euro CrimeInternational Noir Fiction, Mysteries in Paradise and Petrona (where Maxine shares some of my feelings about the novel).

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6 Responses to Review: The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville

  1. kathy durkin says:

    Thanks for your very honest review of this book. Being that 1/2 of my family ancestry is Irish (County Sligo), I pay attention to books by Irish writers, including those about the political history. However, this review persuades me not to read it. I have to like at least one character and care about the person’s dilemmas, as I did with Rob Kitchin’s “The White Gallows,” or Tana French’s books. And, I, too, do not like senseless, endless violence in my reading material.

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  2. Bernadette – Thanks for this very honest review. I’m with you in that I like to find at least one of the characters really engaging in order for me to keep reading. I like stories that aren’t unrelentingly grim, too, so maybe I’ll give this one a miss…

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  3. It’s been a while since I’ve listened to a “book on tape”. I used to do that with our bookclub books that I found boring. Ha!

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  4. kathy durkin says:

    Slightly off topic but I’m celebrating: My library (after weeks of not having these) has books by Teresa Solana and Vanda Symon; thus, I’m saving funds for the Book Depository for several others.

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  5. Maxine says:

    I actually like this book less and less the more I think about it, or come across reviews/posts about it. Thanks, Bernadette, as ever, for an insightful and readable review.

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