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Friday, December 16, 2016

The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville

I've had The Ghosts of Belfast on my list for awhile, and after reading So Say the Fallen, I made a point of checking for it on my next library visit.

So Say the Fallen is a crime/police procedural novel, and I enjoyed it, but The Ghosts of Belfast is in another category altogether.   It is an important book about a period in Northern Ireland that resonates with the problems many countries are facing today.

 Gerry Fegan , a "hard man" and former IRA assassin, was responsible for the deaths of twelve people, including innocent civilians.  When released from prison, Fegan tries to repress the past, drinks heavily, and has trouble sleeping.  Haunted by the twelve individuals he has killed, Fegan is a shell of a man who sees ghosts--and the ghosts are demanding revenge.  The ghosts view Fegan as a tool, and wordlessly, they demand that he kill those who gave the orders or were in some way responsible for their individual deaths.  

For seven years after his release from prison, Fegan resists the ghosts, but when Michael McKenna tries to draw him back into the game--now more criminal and less political--Fegan breaks.  McKenna is the first to die--leaving Fegan with only eleven ghosts seeking revenge. Fegan's vendetta, however, could disrupt the peace process, and he becomes a target from both sides, but his ghosts are relentless in their quest.  Guilt and the possibility of redemption drive Fegan.  No, not even redemption, but at least he hopes that appeasing the ghosts will set him free. 

The Ghosts of Belfast is a crime novel with psychological and supernatural elements.  It is novel about political terrorism, The Troubles, the "disappeared," the brutality and murders committed by the various paramilitaries on both sides--even as the fragile possibility of a resolution was in process.  

Brutal and terrifying and strangely moving, The Ghosts of Belfast gives an intimate look at the violence and the effects of violence on the people of Belfast.  Neville does not spare either side--both sides were guilty of atrocities.  Even now, Belfast is a divided city, physically and emotionally, still dealing with what took place during those 30 + years and the damage to the psyches of not only those who suffered from the violence, but on those who committed acts of violence as well.

This article explains why Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the UK.  


New York Times Notable Book and Winner of The Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Neville's debut remains "a flat-out terror trip" (James Ellroy) and "one of the best Irish novels, in any genre, of recent times" (John Connolly).

Barry Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2010)Macavity Award Nominee for Best First Mystery Novel (2010)Anthony Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2010)Dilys Award Nominee (2010)Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller (2009)

Other good books I've read that deal with the period known as The Troubles:

The Bird Woman by Kerrie Hardy
Shadows on Our Skin by Jennifer Johnston
The Birdwatcher by William Shaw (from NetGalley; review scheduled for June, 2017)

Another good article about this period by Anthony Quinn, who grew up during The Troubles and has written a book I'm adding to my list.

It is one of those strange coincidences that I had just been reading Yeats when I started this book.  I think a line from The Second Coming best illustrates the senseless bloodshed during The Troubles and that is currently happening in the world.  
"The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity."

Library copy.

Crime/Historical.  2009.  337 pages.


  1. Purely out of curiosity, I decided to visit Belfast in 1990 and was immediately struck by the tenseness in the air. I arrived by ferry around midnight and was forced to spend the rest of the night on a cold, metal bench because no one was allowed outside the station until daybreak. The policemen who questioned me could not get over the fact that I had no luggage with me and had come over from Scotland purely on a whim...very suspicious.

    While I was there, a Catholic woman who ran a pharmacy very near a Protestant area was killed while delivery a prescription to an elderly Protestant who was unable to get to the pharmacy because of disabilities. She was gunned down on the woman's street. Needless to say, that made quite an impression on me...a negative one. That, plus the fact that city busses were stopped just about every other block with passengers forced to get off and wait for the next bus (so that the busses could be checked constantly for explosives) convinced me to go on south to Dublin for a look at that city.

    I don't know how anyone could live that way for years without becoming suicidal.

    1. It was a terrifying time, and I can't imagine the stress. You must have been there during some of the worst of the violence, Sam. You've been in several hot spots over the years!

      I was in London with a friend in 1998, and there were still bombings in London even though the peace process was going on. Again, in 2001, I was in London with my daughters and there had been 3 bombings by the IRA earlier in the year. We were there shortly after 9-11, so the airport was full of soldiers in combat gear concerned about terrorists, mostly about Al Qaeda. I have to wonder how the Middle East will recover from the devastation there.

  2. The Ghosts of Belfast is not something I'd seek to read, but I'm intrigued by the supernatural element and how they will play out in a police procedural.

    1. I was engaged from the first of this novel; it is one of the best I've read this year. In addition to the microcosm of political/religious terrorism, I liked the story and poor Gerry Fegan trying to appease his ghosts.

  3. I remember hearing about the violence. You've certainly got my attention with your thoughts on this one, Jenclair. I can't even imagine having to live in that type of environment. I will have to look for this one. Thanks for your great review.

    1. I can understand why it won so many prizes.