Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Twelve; Stuart Neville

The Twelve is one of those books I read out of a tangled up sense of obligation. It had got a lot of good reviews, and there's been a certain amount of fuss about the follow up. And I'm interested in Northern Ireland at the moment and sort of conscious that my understanding of the place is out of date. So it seemed to my addled mind that The Twelve might be a way of starting to get my head around the preoccupations of the province. I was already nicely in character when I found myself wondering if an author called Stuart Neville could conceivably be from the nationalist community. By the end of the book, I wasn't even sure if he was from the province, or even from Ireland. There was something about the scene setting which reminded me of colour pieces by journalists from out of town. When you live in a town, its landmarks affect you a different way and you don't have the same need to explain them.

There's a problem at the heart of the book which would need a lot of talent to beat; the characters are pretty much horrible people. In a way, that's unavoidable. Neville's writing about the IRA. Making them cuddly would be as jarring as writing a novel about lovable klansmen. If you want to be down to earth about the Troubles, there's no getting away from the fact that most of the main actors were bad people. The problem from the reader's point of view is that there's only so much time you can spend in the company of bad people before you get fed up.

It doesn't help that the book is structured to showcase a spread of different kinds of atrocity. The main character Gerry Fegan is haunted by the ghosts of the people he's murdered in the course of the troubles, and in an effort to appease them, he sets out to kill the people who planned the killings he carried out. Somehow, it feels contrived that Fegan's tally includes a full spectrum of all possible types of victim; civilian bystanders, suspected informers, RUC, UDR, British soldiers and loyalist paramilitaries. And even though the reality is that the IRA operated in a tight cell system within a very inward looking clannish community, which would mean that Fegan would have known most of the people involved in planning his jobs, it still feels far too convenient that they're all so closely intertwined. Everything feels as though it's been marshalled to make a point.

That's really the biggest weakness in the work; it feels like a book about a problem rather than a book about people.

The IRA and Sinn Fein (always called the party, never spelled out) come off pretty badly in the book, but no-one comes off well. Loyalist paramilitaries are dismissed as criminal inadequates who killed only those who they were sure couldn't fight back. The British security forces are depicted as - lord, I'm not sure how they're supposed to be perceived - we see them setting up people to be killed and worrying mostly about covering their backs and making sure the politicians aren't embarassed. The British establishment gets a walk on part in the shape of an Assistant Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who's like a walking assembly of every conceivable political cliche (ambitious, but lazy, resentful of people with actual ability, obsessed with the perks of office, and ending the book having been cleaned out by a hooker). With those as the "good guys" it's hard to say that the IRA is really getting singled out for bad coverage.

Ultimately, The Twelve is a depressing book. Fegan finds redemption of a sort, and all sorts of bad people get ventilated, but the thrust of the book is that the IRA and Sinn Fein have rolled out of a corrupt and evil war into a somehow even more corrupt peace, where the leaders of murder gangs on both sides have been let into the world of politics and their foot-soldiers bought off with bogus Community Development jobs. That's certainly a way to look at what's been achieved between 1998 and today. But given that the book's central character arc is about the struggle for redemption and forgiveness, it's an outlook jarringly at odds with the experience the reader is supposed to identify with.

Thinking about it as I've tried to type this post, and to stick within my self-imposed limitations on talking politics, the book has been useful in making me think about the situation in Northern Ireland. I just don't think I've come away from the book thinking the things that it was so obviously written to make me think.

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