The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville / ****

515jvth5w9lThere’s a lot of things that can draw you into a book. Sometimes it’s the author; sometimes it’s the plot description; sometimes, it’s something as simple as an intriguing cover or title that draws you in. In the case of The Ghosts of Belfast, it was the pull quotes. More specifically, it was the authors of two of those quotes, each of whom raved about the book, calling it an incredible debut, and a great – and unsettling – piece of crime fiction. Those two authors? James Ellroy and John Connolly, two men who rank among the finest craftsmen working in the genre today. So when you get their praises, you’ve got my attention. But in a way, those two names can tell you everything you need to know about this book.

The Ghosts of Belfast (originally titled The Twelve) focuses on former (more or less) IRA hitman Gerry Fegan, a man haunted – perhaps literally – by his crimes. Neville’s novel is set after the worst of The Troubles, as Ireland works on an unsteady path to peace – a path that means men like Fegan are out of their place and time. As the novel opens, Fegan is drinking – something he does quite often these days – and trying to ignore the twelve spectral visions which haunt him day and night. Maybe they’re only in his head; maybe they’re real. But whatever the case, each represents someone he’s killed. But when Fegan kills a man to appease one of the visions, and the vision disappears, he becomes a man on a new mission – one of vengeance.

The connection to John Connolly seems obvious for anyone who’s read the Parker series. A hint of the supernatural, dark men with dark motives, a penchant for violence, and, of course, the Irish worldview that permeates the book. And yet, to focus too much on the ghosts – which may or may not exist – is to miss the point of the book. Indeed, even though both titles the book has had imply that the book centers on these figures, instead, this is a novel about guilt, and violence, and shame. It’s a book that’s about the scars left behind in the wake of the Troubles, yes, but also the scars left behind by the men who fought for their independence, and who’ve done horrific, brutal things in the name of that fight.

Which brings us to the Ellroy connection. The men of Ghosts of Belfast are fighters. They’re revolutionaries, freedom fighters – and, with all the emotional heft that comes with the word, “terrorists.” And even the closest thing we get to a hero turns out to be a deeply broken one, a man who may have lost any sense of a moral compass in an effort to stay alive and stay safe. In other words, they’re the exact sorts of men that Ellroy writes about: men capable of anything, as long as the cause – or the money – is right. And as the book’s focus widens beyond the mission of Gerry Fegan, we see that the book is about more than one man’s guilt; it’s about the uneasy new status of Ireland, the complex new morality and balance that’s giving Ireland a new lease on life.

The Ghosts of Belfast is a complex novel, and not an easy one to pigeonhole. In some ways, it’s a bleak revenge novel; at other times, it’s a complex, nuanced look at a politically difficult period in Ireland’s evolution. Sometimes, it’s a sprawling look at corruption and crime; other times, it’s a painful dissection of guilt and violence. Sometimes, it’s a book about what it takes – and what it’s worth – to maintain peace. And other times, it’s simply about brutality and what men do to each other in the name of the greater good.

All of that makes it a difficult book to describe, and hard to figure out sometimes. And yet, it’s also that same complexity that makes it so rewarding, and so unlike much else out there. To read Ghosts of Belfast is to dip your toes into a very different world, one that’s utterly foreign to many Americans, and one where lines are far blurrier. And if the book sometimes feels uneven, or full of odd juxtapositions, or a bit bumpy…that’s okay. Because there’s something refreshing about a book that feels this ambitious and different, and when it works, it really, really works.


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