Stuart Neville, The Twelve (London: Vintage, 2010). Hard-hitting Belfast noir that excavates the controversial past of The Troubles 4.5 stars
Opening line: Maybe if he had one more drink they’d leave him alone.
I read the first two chapters of The Twelve late one night at the Harrogate crime festival, and was immediately hooked. An extremely well-written blend of hard-hitting noir and ghost story, it tackles the controversial subject of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in a highly original and effective way.
The novel is set in 2007, around the time of the St. Andrew’s Agreement. Its central protagonist is Gerry Fegan, a former paramilitary hitman, who has been haunted nightly since his release from prison by the ghosts of the twelve people he murdered. When the ghosts demand that he exact eye-for-an-eye justice on their behalf, by executing various individuals complicit in their deaths, Gerry agrees, on the condition that they’ll leave him alone once he’s done. However, he also has to deal with the fallout of his actions in a fragile post-conflict Belfast.
Gerry’s ghosts consist of three British soldiers, two soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment, a Royal Ulster Constabulary policeman, two Ulster Freedom Fighter Loyalists, as well as four civilians – a shopkeeper, a teenager, and a woman and her baby. The way they haunt him (a trope with a rich pedigree in the work of Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Toni Morrison and Stephen King, amongst others), allows the author to examine the history and violence of The Troubles to devastating effect, and to explore larger themes of guilt, justice and responsibility in the post-conflict era.
There is a particularly ingenious openness built into the ghostly figures and how we understand them as readers. We can either choose to accept that they’re a genuine supernatural happening, or alternatively, as Gerry’s psychologist argues, that they are a ‘manifestation’ of his guilt.
If we opt for the former interpretation, then the ghosts’ desire for vengeance can be seen as a response to the lack of justice in the wake of their deaths. The men who sanctioned their murders, some of whom are now respectable politicians with their eyes on power at Stormont, have evaded punishment. Even the little justice that was served has been sacrificed to facilitate an end to the conflict: murderers like Gerry were released from prison early and re-classified as ‘political prisoners’ following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. (This is a common conflict-resolution dilemma – to what extent can or should justice be sacrificed in the interests of achieving political stability?)
If, on the other hand, we view the ghosts as the creation of Gerry’s fevered imagination, they can be seen as the embodiment of his guilt, but also as the means by which he sidesteps that guilt. Instead of fully accepting moral responsibility, he uses the ghosts to hold those who were above him in the chain of command accountable for his own crimes (the classic ‘I was following a superior’s orders’ defence).
So the ghosts point up the price paid for sacrificing justice as part of the peace settlement (the ghouls are a vicious ‘return of the repressed’), while also delivering a complex portrait of a perpetrator’s struggle to cope with his guilt. Very clever indeed.
The key question for me throughout the narrative was how the author was going to square the circle of Gerry’s own guilt, given the latter’s ultra-violent past and present (he was and is a murderer, no matter how you spin the motivation for his actions). I’m not *quite* sure that the narrative’s moral logic was wholly sustained at the end (I won’t say more for fear of spoilers). But given the complexities of the subject-matter, I think the novel does an admirable job of maintaining a balanced point of view: barely anyone – be they Catholic, Protestant, Northern Irish, British or other – comes out of this story morally intact. Crucially, the narrative’s emotionally ‘cool’ tone ensures that readers are not tempted to empathise with Gerry in such a way as to excuse his crimes or moral failings.
Given the assurance with which the narrative is written, it’s hard to believe that this was the author’s publishing debut. I haven’t been this impressed by a first novel since reading Sam Hawken’s The Dead Women of Juárez.
You can read the first two chapters of The Twelve here.
There are also a number of ‘deleted scenes’ from the novel available on Stuart Neville’s website, which are worth a read after you’ve finished the novel.
The Twelve (titled The Ghosts of Belfast in the US), is the first of a three-part series. The others are Collusion and Stolen Souls.
Mrs. Peabody awards The Twelve a hard-hitting and memorable 4.5 stars.