This superlative work of contemporary nonfiction was a gift, both literally and figuratively. It tells the story of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, centering on the usual suspects, like Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes of the republican cause, but also lesser-known individuals caught up in the struggle, including Dolours and Marian Price, sisters who perpetrate the opening act of violence then find a way out of it all for a time, only to be dragged back in.
Patrick Radden Keefe opens the story with the 1972 abduction and murder of a mother of eight, Jean McConville, who is suspected by members of the IRA of colluding with Loyalist forces against the cause of a united Ireland. The perpetrators are the Price sisters and one other, all of whom live in the Catholic ghetto of government housing known as Divis Flats. They kidnap McConville from her apartment, in front of her children, then shoot her and bury the body in a desolate location for her suspected treachery against the cause, all of which she vehemently denies.
From here we meet Adams and Hughes, towering figures in the IRA, and learn of the work they were doing. The accounts here make clear that Adams was no saint, and the depth of the research into all that transpired in the four or five decades thereafter—in The Troubles generally, but also in the personal lives of all these figures and many others—is staggering. The endnotes in the back of the book share all the sources by page number, to support the narrative without interrupting the flow of the text.
The narrative is striking in places, complicated in others, and dramatic as hell in many. We learn about the broader forces driving the political and social conflicts, the leaders and other characters on each side, and how all this took place against the backdrop of world affairs. But what keeps us turning the pages is all the elements of story—the stakes that are so high for these characters and the world, the many antagonistic forces at play, the real people we’ve come to care about who face extraordinary challenges. The problems confronting the politicians on all sides, the personal circumstances that befall individuals we’ve come to know, the guns and grenades and the shocking violence—which is all the more powerful for being underdone—all combine for a satisfying and extraordinary read.
All this, and it’s nonfiction, including lots of material I don’t recall reading in the newspapers and magazines as these decades went by: the unravelling of the IRA and its leaders, the cloak of secrecy that hid the truths and all the rest, the narrative returning to the Price sisters here and there as the years go by, all make for a terrific true story. The author is a long-time contributor and staff writer for The New Yorker and it shows.
A worthy work of social and political nonfiction, about a conflict we lived with for decades.
You might consider pairing it up with Kenneth Branagh’s new film, Belfast, a superlative bit of filmmaking about a young family caught in the cross-fire of The Troubles. The tremendous musical soundtrack argues for selecting a theater with a good sound system.
This is my kind of novel. The deliberate development of the protagonist by an author with a sure hand. A broader social or historic theme serving as backdrop to the more intimate story. A resolution that answers just enough while leaving the rest to a more enlightened reader than the one who began—even if it’s his second or third read over a span of ten or twenty years.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day won The Booker Prize back when it meant something. It spins the tale of a man, Mr. Stevens, who has devoted his life to serving as long-time butler to a nobleman, Lord Darlington, whose English house, Darlington Hall, Stevens keeps in order; and after the Lord’s demise, to a Mr. John Farraday, an American gentleman. Over the course of a solitary week-long excursion in Mr. Farraday’s Ford—a rather more noble Ford than the ones most of us drove back when, though it does break down at one point—Stevens casts his mind back over his life as the ranking member of a household with a dozen or more on staff, including his erstwhile second-in-command, Miss Kenton, and his own aging and fading father.
The drive takes place in 1956, long after the Second World War has been won. The story he tells concerns not just his own life, and as best he can tell it the matter of his relationship over all the years with Miss Kenton—which seems to us to have been badly misplayed—but the story of how Lord Darlington’s involvement in the run-up to that war nearly cost his countrymen dearly. The history of British appeasement, and the nobility and conservative views behind it, are set off against our protagonist’s own actions in his private life: Stevens is as clueless and reticent as the nobility’s power brokers were back when. And he’s perfectly comfortable with—in that he won’t even speak against—the nobles’ notion that democracy should take a back seat lest the whole nation go to hell in a handbasket:
“Look at Germany and Italy, Stevens. See what strong leadership can do if it’s allowed to act. None of this universal suffrage nonsense there. If your house is on fire, you don’t call the household into the drawing room and debate the various options for escape for an hour, do you? It may have been very well once, but the world’s a complicated place now. The man in the street can’t be expected to know enough about politics, economics, world commerce and what have you. And why should he? In fact, you made a very good reply last night, Stevens. How did you put it? Something to the effect that it was not in your realm? Well, why should it be?”
In this way and others, echoes of the more intimate story of Stevens—who won’t, and indeed can’t, think for himself on personal issues or anything other than his work—resonate in the broader story. Opportunities are overlooked and timings misplayed, again and again, and not just by Stevens. The character of Miss Kenton serves also to further consideration of all these issues, particularly when Stevens stops to see her near the end of his journey.
A masterful job of storytelling it is, and not just for fun, but for keeps.
Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, and his latest novel is Klara and the Sun.
Nick Hornby is a prolific writer—novels, screenplays, nonfiction—he does it all, and he’s good at all of it. His debut novel, High Fidelity, was made into a terrific hit movie by the same name many years ago, and he’s seemingly never looked back or questioned his ability to pull off any crazy idea.
His latest novel, Just Like You, is another unlikely love story, this one between a young black man who pinch-hits for a middle-aged white woman’s regular babysitter, and they fall in love. Well, a sort of love anyway—they certainly care about each other—but both are fully cognizant of the likelihood that it can’t last forever. Few writers would even attempt to pull this off, but Hornby is fearless, perhaps because he’s so prolific it may sometimes seem he’s already done everything else. Or maybe he just loves a challenge.
He has one here, to be sure. But from their chance encounter at one of Joseph’s several part-time jobs, this one behind the counter at a butcher shop, Lucy hires him to watch the kids one evening when her ex is unavailable. They stay and talk when she returns, and the kids want him back as much as Lucy does; he’s good for them, and she sees that. The writing has the look of all good fiction: Characters are drawn and put in motion, and Hornby watches what transpires and follows the truth as it goes down on the page. He would seem absolutely fearless if one thought of him at all, but only reviewers would bother with all that; to a reader, the words on the page and the story they tell just seem like the truth at every turn.
When Lucy has a long talk with a friend who’s having trouble finding someone, she says of her new circumstances with Joseph:
“I suppose you could call him a family friend. But really. That’s all I want to say. And it’s not going anywhere. We’re just . . . keeping each other company until something else happens.”
“That’s what I want! Exactly that!”
It may be what you want, Lucy thought, but it isn’t what you need. You need books, music, maybe God. But some guy in between wives isn’t going to do much for you.
But isn’t this what Joseph is for Lucy? Not exactly, because Lucy has books and music, and wasn’t looking for this relationship when it happened. But the point is well made and keeps us all thinking. Hornby always keeps us thinking, in all his books.
Including their endings. Here we get an ending that is so true—Hornby doesn’t shrink from the truth—it proves his bona fides as a novelist. Of course, it’s not to be given away in any review.
I wanted to say something here about Colm Toibin’s latest novel, which I mentioned last time around.
At least on first reading, The Magician is my least favorite of all his novels. The Master, his early novel about the life of Henry James, is enlightening on its subject’s life and thought. It’s a great novel, which was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize. The Magician, on the other hand, strikes me—on first read, at least—as muddled and extremely difficult to follow.
The problem may be, in part, the difference between its subjects. Thomas Mann fathered five children with his wife, but harbored homosexual yearnings he rarely acted on but often wrote about, and not just in his diaries. I read Mann’s slim novella Death in Venice to try to make some sense of all this, and have no trouble recommending it. Henry James, on the other hand, was essentially asexual it seems to me, and not tormented about it; he saved his energy for his life’s work, and enjoyed deep friendships with the women in his life. To write about him was mostly to write about the creative process, the few deep friendships he had, and the loneliness of such a life.
Moreover, to write about Thomas Mann with all his political persuasions—which shifted dramatically over the course of a life that spanned two world wars—and how these views and so many others affected his writing all along, seems a tall order indeed. It’s hard to care very much about a man whose feelings about everything, even his family, seem to shift all the time; and writing a novel about someone who’s tough to like is a tall order.
If you’re interested, have a look at the linked articles from The New Yorker, which shed some light on some of this.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .