What is the Northern Ireland Season?
As most of you know, I have a penchant for Irish fiction and have read and reviewed countless novels by Irish authors over the past nine years. But when it comes to books set in Northern Ireland it's a different story. I've only read one — Colin Bateman's Divorcing Jack way back in 2001.
I hasten to add this hasn't been a conscious decision. I've certainly read my fair share of non-fiction about the Troubles (although nothing has been reviewed here), including Kevin Toolis' Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA's Soul and Eamon Collins' Killing Rage, but for some reason fictional accounts have never really crossed my path.
Given that the province has been somewhat in my thoughts lately, namely because of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which finally came to an end earlier this month after 12 long years, it seemed like a good a time as any to explore the literary offerings around this key period in British/Irish history.
Over the next month I plan to read a selection of fiction set in Northern Ireland as part of a "Northern Ireland season". I've chosen five books, all of them from my TBR pile, apart from Stuart Neville's The Twelve, which I bought earlier in the week.
I'm planning to post reviews of each book on successive Saturdays throughout July. If you'd like to read along with me, whether it's just one book or the entire five, you'd be most welcome. I'm hoping that some interesting discussions may be generated in the comment section under each review.
The books I have chosen are an interesting mix of mainly literary fiction, with a crime novel thrown in for good measure, and I'm reading them roughly in chronological order in terms of the time in which they are set, from the early 1970s, as the Troubles begin, through to the Noughties when the peace process is in full swing.
What books are you reading?
One by One in the Darkness by Deidre Madden (Faber and Faber 1996)
"ONE BY ONE IN THE DARKNESS is an account of a week in the lives of three sisters shortly before the start of the IRA ceasefire in 1994, undercut with the story of their childhood in Northern Ireland of the 1960s and 1970s. The history of both a family and a society, ONE BY ONE IN THE DARKNESS confirms Deirdre Madden's reputation as one of Irish fiction's most outstanding talents. It was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1997."
Shadows on our Skin by Jennifer Johnston (Headline Review 1977)
"Derry in the 1970s: teenager Joe Logan is growing up in the teeth of the Troubles, having to cope with embittered parents, a brother who's been away and come back with money and a gun in his pocket, harsh school teachers, and the constant awareness of the military presence in the background. Central to the story is the friendship that tentatively grows up between Joe and Kathleen, a young school-teacher who brings a fresh perspective to his familiar world. SHADOWS ON OUR SKIN was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977."
This Human Season by Louise Dean (Scribner 2006)
"It is December 1979. Kathleen's son Sean has been convicted of a crime on behalf of the IRA and sent to Long Kesh prison -- newly renamed the Maze. John Dunn has just taken up a job as a prison guard after leaving the army. Both will be shocked at what they find. Both will try to do the right thing, and fail. Neither will ever be the same again.
"Louise Dean's sensational new novel deals with one of the most explosive and morally complex incidents in recent British history. THIS HUMAN SEASON is a powerful, confronting, humane, and blackly funny examination of the lives of ordinary people when placed in the vice of history."
The Twelve by Stuart Neville (also known as The Ghosts of Belfast) (Vintage 2010)
"Sooner or later, everybody pays — and the dead will set the price. Former paramilitary killer Gerry Fegan is haunted by his victims, twelve souls who shadow his every waking day and scream through every drunken night. Just as he reaches the edge of sanity they reveal their desire: vengeance on those who engineered their deaths. From the greedy politicians to the corrupt security forces, the street thugs to the complacent bystanders who let it happen, all must pay the price. When Fegan's vendetta threatens to derail Northern Ireland's peace process and destabilise its fledgling government, old comrades, and enemies alike want him gone. David Campbell, a double agent lost between the forces of law and terror, takes the job. But he has his own reasons for eliminating Fegan; the secrets of a dirty war should stay buried, even if its ghosts do not.
"Set against the backdrop of a post-conflict Northern Ireland struggling with its past, THE TWELVE takes the reader from the back streets of the city, where violence and politics go hand-in-hand, to the country's darkest heart. Stuart Neville's gripping thriller marks the emergence of a brilliant new voice."
The Truth Commissioner by David Park (Bloomsbury 2009)
"Henry Stanfield, the newly arrived Truth Commissioner, is troubled by his estrangement from his daughter, and struggling with the consequences of his infidelities. Francis Gilroy, veteran Republican and recently appointed government minister, risks losing what feels tantalisingly close to his grasp. In America, Danny and his partner plan for the arrival of their first child, happily oblivious to what is about to pull him back to Belfast and rupture the life they have started together. Retired detective James Fenton, on his way to an orphanage in Romania with a van full of supplies, will soon be forced to confront what he has come to think of as his betrayal, years before, of a teenage boy. In a society trying to heal the scars of the past with the salve of truth and reconciliation, these four men's lives become linked in a way they could never have imagined."
If there is anything in my reading list that has piqued your interest then please do beg, borrow or buy the relevant book/s and join me on the relevant Saturday. The more the merrier! It may not exactly be light reading for the British summer, but it should no doubt be thought-provoking — and for those in the Southern Hemisphere, it might be just the thing for those long winter evenings...