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.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .