Book Review – The Ghosts of Belfast

This is the third in a four-part series where you get to see the reviews I sent my MFA mentor during my second semester. I have chosen not to go through an edit the reviews in any way, despite the fact that I am posting these after I’ve received feedback from my mentor. So you’ll see it the same way you see all my reviews – essentially unedited.

A person’s actions will live with them forever, and the concept of a character being haunted by their past is hardly new. However, when a killer’s ghosts become more than merely memories, the game is shifted completely. Stuart Neville attacks this very concept in his debut novel, haunting his lead role with twelve spirits who are out for blood – just not his. In one major twist, Neville takes this from an oft-seen plot to something just enough off-center to truly attract attention. However, whether or not it lives up to its own hype is a separate matter entirely.

 Gerry Fegan, an ex-paramilitary killer in Northern Ireland, has turned from killing others to killing his liver, content to drown himself in drink. It seems, to him, to be the only way he can begin to silence the ghosts he’s amassed. In an effect that borders on (if not outright being) schizophrenia, Fegan is haunted by twelve ghosts – twelve innocent people that on others’ orders, he has had killed. Each of them wails and moans at him at night, requiring repayment for their blood shed. Fegan is at a loss – he cannot bring them back, and does not know what they want. The spirits lead him back to the ones responsible for ordering their deaths – be it intentional or not – and makes their desires clear: they want these people to pay the same ultimate price. And as Fegan begins taking down the guilty ones, thus taking out large chunks of a political movement, his own life becomes more and more at risk as the party attempts to fight back.

This is a fascinating idea, and a topic not uncommon to literature and film. Texts going back to even Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and probably beyond deal with this. Jay Gatsby has no literal ghosts, but fights with who he was and who he wants to become – Teddy Daniels in Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island has his entire life overshadowed by the ghost of his wife – even going back to Charles Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge in Christmas Carol, with Marley and the Christmas ghosts. Neville takes his character more in the Dickens-esque line of thought, making the ghosts more real to their victim – and making the reader question the reality of the ghosts. Fegan’s battle with what he believes is right, what the spirits want him to do, and how far he will be pushed to go in order to sleep in peace is all believable.

However, the story is lacking in compelling reasons to read it. With a concept this common, there needs to be something else driving the reader to continue turning the pages. It appears that Neville was aiming for a more psychological thriller approach, attempting to make the plot itself that which affixes us to the story. However, this fails dramatically. Fegan has twelve ghosts – he is the main character of the story – he begins systematically killing the people responsible. Though it is not told from a first-person point of view (and wisely so; it would make this conclusion even more glaring) there is little way for this story to end. Either he succeeds, and the story is given a “happy ending” – or he does not, and he is killed by the man sent to kill him. From an American author, the second ending is almost impossible, given the love of the “Hollywood ending” where all works out and people live happily ever after. As Fegan begins running into more and more obstacles, it was less a question of whether or not he would fend them off, and merely a question of how – and how long it would take him to do such.

The ending of the book was not surprising, though it was not precisely as I had expected it to be. The forced suspense and implied dramatic tension never brought me to a point where the ending of the book was in question, nor did I ever form a strong connection to the victims – either the ghosts or Gerry’s – or Gerry himself. It read as if it were a courtroom’s minutes from a serial murder’s trial, attempting to masquerade as an action thriller film.

It is reassuring to hear that this is Neville’s first novel. From a standpoint of professional quality only, Neville has a skill for writing, and there are several truly disturbing scenes of torture and anguish in the book. His eye for character is superb, introducing a relatively large cast and managing to give all of them separate voices. His ability to reintroduce old ideas in new ways is something to be commended – however, it will not truly take the next step until the presentation of the plot can live up to the hype of its characters.


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