The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Eoin McNamee's two Troubles novels

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 6 March 2005

Re-reading Resurrection Man about a decade after it appeared, it holds up well. My earlier impression after my initial immersion into its dark corners was one of grisliness, but on re-examining McNamee's debut (hard to believe, that), I realise that what truly makes the narrative so powerful is the withholding of such gory details from the reader. The omniscient voice does shadow in and out of various characters (to more or less similar effect—his the novel's main drawback in its monotone, if also its noirish strength), but since the characters keep the horror at a distance, so then do we, as spectators.

This detachment differentiates McNamee's take on Belfast from the farce of Colin Bateman, the humanity of Glenn Patterson, or the tragi-comedy of Robert MacLiam Wilson, to name his able peers. Atmospheric in a manner that conjures up a sodden city as grim as Dickensian London, this fits a period that now has been obliterated under new skylines, regentrified waterside developments, and tenuous ceasefires. Based on Lenny Murphy and his Shankill Butchers, the crimes they commit are not so much the focus as the aura they create, and live haunted within, as the Ulster rhetoric they pay lip service to is, as the perpetrators know, no cover for the deeper violence to which they pledge their true allegiance, even if they cannot fully articulate it.

The subplot of the journalist Ryan, his estranged wife Margaret, his contact Coppinger, and the "moll" Heather gets a bit murky, as if McNamee did not want to fully explore the supporting characters circling about Victor Kelly. It's a little disappointing, and feels incomplete. The lack of range of registers in many of the indirect narratives of the main characters makes for a sameness in tone that works well in smaller doses, but over a couple hundred pages gets a bit wearying. This may be McNamee's intent, as the style—suffused with homiletic cadences and half-remembered biblical starkness—recalls both Joyce's Dubliners ("scrupulous meanness") and Beckett's street denizens in its carefully modulated detachment.

I was eager to read last year's new novel The Ultras, a fictionalisation of Robert Nairac's not very successful undercover operations in South Armagh during the height (or nadir) of the Troubles. In an excellent paragraph, a famous photo snapped of Nairac with a sneer amidst a crowd of Ardoyne children is examined to reveal the operative's hapless patronisation of the 'natives' even as he boasted of his ability to assume disguises, accents, and false identities. The murk into which not only Nairac but his colleagues known here as Ultras poisons all who plunge into the grime and grit McNamee describes with precision if not passion. The murder of the Miami Showband and dirty tricks campaigns by British psy-ops also darken the scenes, as McNamee shows he has again done his research. As with Resurrection Man, he takes an actual figure and surrounds him with characters investigating him whose lives slowly unravel and decay.

McNamee's good at this genre. In the near decade since his first novel, he has lightened his epigrammatic if sometimes ponderous style here a bit to allow greater verisimilitude. His sonorous pronouncements, borrowed perhaps from the crime genre and here incorporated into more mainstream, if still quite edgy, popular fiction serve as both the author's strength and crutch. The conversations and the reflections of (again) an largely omniscient narrator keep the reader (again) at quite a distance from the events being shown. The switching back and forth between Nairac's career leading up to 1977 and the later recording of Agnew's attempts to make sense of Nairac's fate from a vantage point 25 years later allow, unlike as in Resurrection Man, a chance for the incorporation of a more expansive storyline upon which McNamee can allow a greater array of secondary characters and events to emerge more leisurely.

Although the book is not much longer than his first novel, it feels more epic. Getting out of Belfast into the countryside as well as onto the bases where the Crown seeks to infiltrate the loyalist rogue gangs and sabotage the republican cause makes for intriguing reading. Where the book falls a bit flat is, as in the first novel, McNamee's insistence on once more giving us an investigator whose marriage falls apart amidst the search. But now, he has an anorexic daughter as well as an re-married wife to contend with. While the daughter's musings make for a welcome change in McNamee's linguistic register, her fate seems too pat to fit in as a parallel to that of Nairac.

This book also alludes in a sentence to 'journalist John Parker'. In fact, this writer penned Death of a Hero on Nairac in 1999. Obviously, Parker's title tells you all you need to know about the bias of that biography, but I did find it another clever way for McNamee to show he has done his swotting up on the mysterious figure, who here seems a would-be James Bond who at times plays more like Austin Powers—if less groovy, than equally insensible to how his act plays among the more knowing spectators.

[Both novels have been issued 2004 in paperback by Faber]





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

7 March 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

The Butcher of Derry
Anthony McIntyre

Republican Anger at Criminals on Political Wing
Martin Mulholland, IRPWA

Brian Mór

The Rally for Justice
Sean Smyth

Green Leadership in North Call for a 'Big Conversation'
on a Unified Nationalist/Republican Strategy for the Endgame

John Barry, Green Party

Eoin McNamee's two Troubles novels
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Irish Christians and Africa
Dr John Coulter

4 March 2005

Honourary White Man
Marc Kerr

A Blanketman Still Fighting to be Heard
Anthony McIntyre

The Dam Has Burst
Mick Hall

The Peace Process Has Been Saved
David Adams

World's Largest Men's Room
Brian Mór

Green Beer and Bad Singing
Fred A Wilcox

Ireland's Neutrality is Not Threatened
Thomas Lefevre

Sentences of Death: Mary Gordon's Pearl
Seaghán Ó Murchú



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