Book reviews: New titles from Malachi O'Doherty, Eimear McBride, AD Miller and Stacey Halls
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Terry Brankin Has A Gun by Malachi O'Doherty, published by Merrion Press, priced £14.99
THE newest addition to the 'legacy fiction' genre is Terry Brankin Has A Gun by Malachi O'Doherty. Set in the present and the 1970s, the story concerns the journey of our eponymous hero – or maybe anti-hero – from young IRA operative to lawyer with a past.
It opens with a bombing, then the punishment burnings of Brankin's home to ensure his silence as the Cold Case men investigate. The skilful shifts in time from Belfast then to Northern Ireland now illustrate the continuing struggles over Irish identity. And the way Terry Brankin's life unravels as we learn of his single big, mistaken terrorist attack is compelling.
The subject matter is dramatic and O'Doherty describes some terrifying bombs, near-misses and killings. But where this novel really scores is in its depiction of Ulster's moral maze.
There are layers of irony and one of the strongest characters, Dom McGrath, head of the 'RA, turns out to be as nuanced as Graham Greene's head of police in The Power and The Glory. The man described with cynicism as a "sainted" killer always gets juniors to do his dirty work for him as he doesn't actually enjoy murder all that much.
On the other side of the law, McKeague, an evangelical senior policeman, uses his over-developed sense of justice to torture men into submission.
The ethics are well done. O'Doherty teases out the complex attitudes of the church and the politicians as well as his two main characters, Terry and his long-suffering wife Kathleen. One of the scariest passages involves Terry's arrival in the nick of time to save his wife from the not at all tender ministrations of an armed republican making sure he keeps quiet about that old terrorist attack.
This is Belfast noir indeed, with the reader's feelings turning this way and that as the sort-of-goody and probable baddie slug it out in the countryside. While wondering where to dispose of his victim, sent to kneecap Kathleen, Terry drives through a beautiful bit of Donegal and admires the scenery.
Brankin's moral compass is occasionally a bit unconvincing, although in terms of muddied motivation and flawed virtue, he's right down there with Mr Wallander: Brankin cries remembering the death of the wrong little girl, yet quite enjoys using his Luger again. Later, he admits to the peeler "I genuinely am sorry. I repent of killing the Laverys", adding he's in Purgatory.
Naturally, there is no easy ending. There's Special Branch involvement, organisations (political and state) clean up their mistakes and it all ends in Maghaberry Prison. As a body is found in a cell, we read: "The killing would never stop".
Independence Square by AD Miller, published in hardback by Harvill Secker, priced £14.99 (ebook £9.99)
AD MILLER'S Man Booker Prize-shortlisted debut novel Snowdrops was an energetic tale of betrayal and murky morals set in Moscow. The action shifts west to Kiev for the follow-up to 2015's The Faithful Couple.
Against the backdrop of the Orange Revolution of 2004, Independence Square is a political thriller charting the diplomatic machinations aimed at averting tragedy as the Ukrainian people rise up to protest the result of a controversial presidential election.
These events are described in flashback as, over a decade later in London, former aspiring ambassador Simon Davey grapples with a shock reunion on the Tube, resurrecting painful memories of his apparent double-crossing in Kiev.
A fine education in the details of an uprising which caused a ripple effect across eastern Europe that is still being felt today, the human element of the saga is more than compelling enough to make this novel digestible in a few sittings.
The Foundling by Stacey Halls, published in hardback by Manilla Press, priced £12.99 (ebook £6.47)
SHRIMP seller Bess reluctantly takes her newborn daughter to London's Foundling Hospital to give her a chance of survival. She immediately goes back to walking the streets selling scoops of seafood but dreams one day she will be able to give her child a home. A short carriage ride away, Alexandra lives in a comfortable house which she is frightened to leave.
The two seem unlikely to meet, but Stacey Halls' second novel weaves the women's lives together against the backdrop of 18th Century London, dividing her story into sections, each with one of the them as narrator.
The squalor, grime and drudgery of Bess' world is brought to life in this easy reading story, although the character only really comes to life halfway through the novel. Until then she seems a little too good to be true, while cold Alexandra is the more intriguing of the pair.
The plot heats up in the second half and Bess shows her steel while Alexandra reveals what's behind her hard shell.
Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride is published in hardback by Faber & Faber, priced £12.99 (ebook £7.99)
THIS may be a slip of a novel, but it requires a huge amount of mental effort and rigorous reading, if you're to avoid being totally overwhelmed and driven to abandon it after the first page.
Strange Hotel focuses on a nameless woman. We don't know her age, what she does, or why she travels so much, and never encounter her outside the confines of a series of hotel rooms around the world. You slowly piece together the fact that sometimes years, possibly even decades, have passed between each new room, as she grapples with the aftermath of casual sexual encounters, the loss of someone beloved, and seemingly considers leaping from her hotel balconies.
Her interior monologues are both fraught and laboured, leaving you listless and free of empathy as a reader. The prose and structure – sometimes the sentences seem to have been modelled on Yoda's delivery – are demanding, without being all that enlightening.
Individual and ambitious, yes, but it's not overly enjoyable.