Belfast barrister decides not to go straight

Belfast barrister Desmond Fahy's accomplished debut novel isn't a straight legal drama but crime is to the fore and its themes of struggling with the past will resonate with readers in Northern Ireland, writes Simon Doyle

Barrister and author Desmond Fahy outside the High Court in Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

DESMOND Fahy is used to playing a pivotal role in legal dramas, given the amount of time he spends in the courtroom. Now, the Belfast-based barrister has launched his first novel, but has avoided the temptation to draw on his experience to write a straight, well, legal drama.

"It would have been easy to write a straight legal-based book but I didn't want to do that. Because of the subject matter there are legal elements that do crop up but not in such a way as to overwhelm the rest of the story. There are enough legal dramas around without me adding to the deluge," Fahy laughs.

While Witness B certainly concerns criminal justice, the book's main focus is on the central character, B, as he struggles to cope with intrusive, violent memories from his past.

The novel is set in a betting shop on south Belfast's Ormeau Road. Chapters alternate between an afternoon spent in the betting shop and increasingly vivid recollections of a murder B witnessed many years before that he is now struggling to come to terms with. B is forced to deal with his past and make sense of it in the present.

The writing style is sparse, focussing on the main character's internal struggles as the world around threatens to overwhelm him. It's a modern novel, influenced by the terse, pared-back style of writers including James Kelman and Ian McEwan.

The issues raised – living with the past, preventing the past from overwhelming the present – have resonances for modern life in Northern Ireland.

Fahy said the idea of writing something on this theme had been with him for a long time.

"If it was a child it would be ready to leave primary school now. So it has been a long time in formation," he said.

"I had written two non-fiction books which had elements of reimagining past events so it seemed natural to try a fully fledged piece of fiction. I think I underestimated just how long it would take but the journey has been enjoyable."

Previously Fahy worked as a journalist with The Irish Times and UTV. His other books are How The GAA Survived The Troubles and Death On A Country Road, the story of the murders in 1975 of Derry GAA supporters Sean Farmer and Colm McCartney, who were returning from Croke Park when they were killed by loyalist paramilitaries operating an illegal checkpoint in south Armagh.

Writing fiction presented a different challenge, however.

"My background in a past life in journalism and the earlier books meant I was comfortable with factual writing, but imagining a story and characters from scratch was a whole new challenge," he said.

"I had a clear idea of how the book was going to work, which helped. The chapters alternate between the present and a point in the undefined past. The present-day chapters take place during an afternoon in a bookies shop as the character starts to fall apart because of intrusive memories from this event in his past. It sounds a bit dark when I say it like that but I hope anyone who reads it can enjoy the process as well.

"The real challenge was finding the right time and space to get the writing done along with everything to do with my family and day job but I got there in the end."

Fahy made a decision early on to try and keep control of the book by organising the editing, design and printing.

"I don't think I realised what a huge undertaking that was but it has been a learning experience the whole way through. And at the end I can say 'I started this and saw it through to the end'. That's satisfying."

:: Witness B by Desmond Fahy is published by 0358 Books, priced £7.99, and is available at the No Alibis bookshop in Belfast and online.


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