Book review: Lack of revelations means Gerry Adams biography ultimately disappoints
Book of the Week
GERRY ADAMS: AN UNAUTHORISED LIFE by Malachi O'Doherty, published in paperback by Faber and Faber, priced £14.99
THE name Gerry Adams provokes varied responses. At one extreme he’s seen as the driver of a long and bloody campaign of violence, while at the other he’s regarded in almost messianic terms, a freedom fighter turned peacemaker.
Whatever your take on the Sinn Féin president of 34 years and counting, it’s hard not to acknowledge that he’s an intriguing individual, a man of contrasts and contradictions. Depending on the occasion, the audience or the context, he can be warm and disarming or sinister and intimidating. His political career and personality warrant deep scrutiny, though too often the authors of such pieces are clouded by bias and a predetermined agenda.
In Gerry Adams An Unauthorised Life, Belfast-based writer/journalist Malachi O’Doherty explores his subject’s multifaceted character, charting the life of the former West Belfast MP from his childhood in Ballymurphy through to his quasi-statesman-like status.
It’s unfair to suggest O’Doherty has made a career critiquing Adams and the republican movement but it’s a regular theme in his writing, its cachet helped greatly by his Catholic, west Belfast background.
This book isn’t a polemic though the author’s obvious contempt for and resentment of the republican movement and its methods are never far from the surface.
And while it’s non-fiction, the early chapters rely heavily on O’Doherty’s imaginings and recollections of 1970s Belfast, alongside many of Gerry Adams’s own experiences, as recalled in his memoirs.
The effect is to give the narrative a rather twee, concocted tone that jars, given that the expectation is for something much more sober and factual.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of O’Doherty’s peers happy to be quoted on the jacket, telling us how significant its contents are. “Illuminating”, “judicious” and even “Conradian” are among the adjectives applied. At times I was forced to ask myself whether we’d read the same book.
An Unauthorised Life follows a chronological trajectory through the Troubles, Sinn Féin’s emergence as a political force and the development of the peace process. It improves as its subject’s life becomes more public and therefore there’s less reliance on conjecture but ultimately it disappoints.
A key theme is using interviews and secondary sources to help highlight the flaws in Adams’s personality and his inconsistent accounts of certain episodes. It draws on the experiences of a familiar bunch of justifiably aggrieved IRA victims and disgruntled former Provos, all of whose stories we have heard at least once before. The other main contributor is Gerry Adams himself, whose various books are cited in the notes scores of times.
Collectively, however, they offer no fresh insights into the Sinn Féin president’s psyche or conclusively answer whether he is/was in the IRA – though certainly the evidence presented here and elsewhere suggests yes. If new facts are unearthed, the author disguises them well or fails to substantiate them. His assertion that Adams is a millionaire, for instance, is dropped in casually without a single qualification.
Arguably many may regard the book’s most startling revelation to be the author’s claim that “Gregory Campbell is both intelligent and funny”.
(John Manley is political correspondent of The Irish News)
AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad, published in hardback by Picador
OMAR El Akkad is an award-winning journalist who was born in Egypt, grew up in Qatar and Canada, and now lives in Portland, Oregon. He has reported first-hand on the Afghanistan War, Guantanamo Bay and the Arab Spring, and it's clear that personal experience has provided much inspiration for his debut novel.
The book is set in late 21st century America, among the tumultuous backdrop of a second civil war. Parts of the southern and eastern states are under water due to rising sea levels, the use of fossil fuels is outlawed and millions have been killed or displaced due to the conflict between north and south.
We follow the story of Sarat Chestnut who, following the death of her father, helps her family survive in a displacement camp on the Tennessee border, and eventually becomes a pawn in the war herself. The comment being made on the policies and actions of the Trump administration is impossible to miss in this engaging and well-written novel. Though obviously far-fetched in places, it paints a disturbingly bleak picture of the potential future of humanity if action on climate change and the divisions in our society are not addressed now.
THIS IS GOING TO HURT by Adam Kay, published in hardback by Picador
ADAM Kay is a comedian who writes for TV and films – but he was once a junior doctor toiling for the NHS in obstetrics and gynaecology, and thereby hangs a tale. The book is Kay's diary of his six years on the wards of hospitals and takes us from his first house officer post to senior registrar, via interesting things removed from interesting places and blood-pressure-raising emergencies as patients' reproductive systems dominate Dr Kay's life.
You can draw your own conclusions from the fact it ends with his leaving medicine entirely and an open letter to the health secretary.
Kay is a comic, and the book is funny – laugh-out-loud in places – but if you or someone close is due to give birth any time soon, maybe leave it on the shelf for a bit.
The insiders' tale of a medical profession feels like a well-trodden genre and in many ways this is pretty typical, that said, it's well-written and entertaining. You can't help but finish with a good deal of sympathy for junior doctors, and our hero in particular, dealing with all manner of unpleasantness and tragedy before leaving late and missing another family dinner.
CHILDREN'S BOOK OF THE WEEK
THE UGLY FIVE by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, published in hardback by Alison Green books
THE well-loved and by now well-oiled writing-drawing duo Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler have never shied away from capturing repugnant beasts – The Gruffalo is, after all, their most famous and successful collaboration – but what makes their latest book unique is that it features real-life creatures.
Launched in partnership with wildlife charity Tusk, The Ugly Five celebrates those less popular African animals: the wildebeest, warthog, marabou stork, spotted hyena and lappet-faced vulture. On a book tour in South Africa, Donaldson was taken on safari and introduced to the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant), but found herself more intrigued by the Ugly Five, and so here they are in all their wrinkled, spindly, stinky, blood-flecked glory.
Through Donaldson's familiarly cunning rhymes, the reader is encouraged to sing the song of each animal, as they form a pack of ugly outcasts. But their babies have a different opinion and accept them just the way they are. Which is exactly the message Donaldson and Scheffler are giving here. Not as memorable as The Gruffalo, but still fun.