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A novel brings a new understanding to Northern Ireland's violence.
Collusion by Stuart Neville (Soho Press, $25)
Our understanding of distant places is so often based purely on their politics — particularly if they have some perceived impact on our own. Journalists tend to focus on those politics, because they can interview leaders and quote ordinary people talking about what those leaders are doing. Let’s say that journalism’s problem is that its aim for objectivity guides it toward the superficialities of politics, while also demanding that it give us an explanation for what’s going on.
Fiction at its best goes beyond such surface politics. It isn’t limited by objectivity. It gives a writer who knows what lies beneath the opportunity to lay it out for us. Only then can we really understand a place. That’s what I’ve felt in writing my novels about Palestinian detective Omar Yussef — who lives in a West Bank locale much talked about by politicians, diplomats and journalists but very little understood. It’s also the great strength of Stuart Neville’s incisive thriller “Collusion.”
Neville won the L.A. Times Book Prize last year for his superb debut “The Ghosts of Belfast.” In that novel, former Irish Republican Army hitman Gerry Fegan is tormented by the ghosts of his victims. To assuage the ghosts’ demands for revenge, he embarks on a strange spree — killing the men who put him up to those murders. On the way, he understands that he had been a dupe. Top Republicans made money from The Troubles. Now that peace has arrived, they still benefit from the same gangland power, while traumatized bit players like Fegan drink themselves to death.
In Neville’s sequel, that realization is expanded to include the collusion of the title. Jack Lennon, a Catholic detective on the Ulster police force, gradually comes to understand that the supposed battles between different powers in Northern Ireland weren’t the real story. In reality the leaders of these feuding groups relied on each other.
Confronting a Loyalist gang leader, Lennon says: “You sold her out to the Republicans. The collusion, it goes all ways, all direction. All the likes of you ever cared about was lining your own pockets. You didn’t give a shit about any cause, did you? Just so long as you were making money.”
It’s insight like this that makes “Collusion” a better way to understand Northern Ireland since its 1998 Good Friday peace agreement than any number of political science papers.
The book begins with three unsuspecting Republicans being framed as part of a cover-up (for Fegan’s shooting spree at the end of “The Ghosts of Belfast.”) The men are pulled over by police near the border with the Irish Republic. One of them notices that the cop leaning in through his car window has a deep, even tan of a kind uncommon in the drab weather of Ulster. In that moment, he knows the man isn’t a cop. He’s a British soldier. “He had been in a dry and barren place, crawling in the dirt, hunting his prey. Iraq, maybe Afghanistan. Maybe somewhere the Yanks and Brits would never admit to. And now he was here, not far from the Irish border, his sun-scorched face blank and unyielding. Just another job.”
The world’s attention has moved on, but Neville’s Northern Ireland remains a place where the rules are different. A big part of the “collusion” involves cops inside the Special Branch intelligence section of the police force. Like the cops in many thrillers, these men are corrupt. But their jobs are anyway based around the kind of dirty deals — intended to keep the peace and balance competing powers — that are done by British and American officials in the places from which Neville’s undercover soldier has just returned. Northern Ireland is still Iraq, still Afghanistan.
One striking element of the novel is how those who violated the unspoken rules of The Troubles continue to pay the price. Lennon is still shunned by his family for having joined the predominantly Protestant police force back when it was seen as a tool of British oppression. The family of his ex-girlfriend Marie MacKenna won’t talk to her, because she had a child with a cop. Their daughter Ellen is endangered by the enmity of an infirm Republican leader for her protector, Fegan, who returns in this novel to settle scores once and for all.
Neville clearly has a message: The Troubles and the violence they sewed in Ulster society haven’t been wiped out even after 12 years of something like peace. The wealth and the real estate bubble he glances at in “Collusion” is shown to be fake and out of place, even destroying the best remaining parts of a culture that had survived the years of conflict. (“The people, all smug and smiling now they’d gathered the wit to quit killing each other and start making money instead.”) In constrast to such smoke and mirrors, the gritty, horrific violence throughout the book is real, as is its continuing power over a people who thought they were supposed to get on and live together at last.