Saturday, February 22, 2020

Terry Brankin Has a Gun (Malachi O’Doherty, Merrion Press) – a well-spun, thoughtful tale that enjoys its foray into past times but also has some dark and critical warnings to flag up about our future

Does the world need another piece of Troubles fiction? The answer for me depends on the quality of the storytelling and whether or not a book revels in long-lost wars or tries to explore something new about our understanding of what might make Northern Ireland tick in the future.

My reading list last summer was dominated by a bedside table of such tales.

Michael Hughes’ Country takes the competitive infighting that inflicts nearly every organisation and exposes what it might have been like in the South Armagh IRA. The cleverness of echoing Homer’s Iliad is somewhat immaterial as the sheer brutality of the tale and the broken humanity at its heart is sufficient to get you turning the pages at great enough speed to become wrapped up in the story.

Someone described Anna Burns’ Booked Prize-winning Milkman to me as being “one of the most bought but least read books” that often languishes ostentatiously but unfinished on people’s shelves. It was certainly only on the third attempt that I could muster momentum to get past the early chapters. Ultimately, it was a joy to spend time in the life of middle sister as she traversed Belfast, got to know maybe-boyfriend and the older ‘milkman’. The dystopian vision of with an inner city crippled by rules, taboos, and complicated lists of who was naughty and nice, never mind the unpacking of how sexual violence sat alongside the more often talked about forms of violence and a late scene when women fight back made it a rewarding if shocking book to read.

Dave Duggan’s excellent novel Oak and Stone explores what happens when a former paramilitary joins the PSNI during a recruitment experiment and finds himself distrusted by his colleagues and many in the community as he takes advantage of his old fieldcraft to investigate complex crimes. The novel situation, strong characters, and a recognisable Derry cityscape make it a cracking read.

Finally, Jan Carson’s Firestarters was both disturbing because of the realisation that it wouldn’t take much to ignite such actions as the book describes in east Belfast during a long hot summer, but also because Carson is such a gentle, caring person in real life and it was hard to fathom how her pure mind could imagine such an evil plot and serve it wrapped up in such delicious prose. It was definitely my favourite book of 2019.

For decades, Malachi O’Doherty has been writing about life in Belfast and the impact of religion (and cycling), as well as broadcasting his opinions on local politics and events. The stories he tells at Tenx9 evenings are distinctive and often fiercely funny tales from his own life. He’s expert at measuring words, constructing rhythmic phrases whose beat enhances their metaphor.

O’Doherty’s first full-length novel Terry Brankin Has a Gun has just been published and was launched earlier this week. It’s a real page turner. The titular character joined the IRA and got his hands dirty in operations before becoming a lawyer. When the spotlight of the Cold Case team is brought to shine on an incident from his criminal past, his portfolio of rented property comes under attacked and violent threats are made against his wife.

In the blurb, Henry McDonald (whose book Two Souls is still on my list to finish) appropriately describes it as “highly filmic”. As this modern-day story of a man unable to leave the IRA behind him is gradually unravelled, each chapter reveals a little of what connects the cast of friends and associates, how they met, how they came to carry such deep scars and secrets. It’s terribly satisfying as the jigsaw pieces slot into place and tick off questions that lingered from earlier in the book.

Everyone starts off as a good person until their flaws are slowly exposed. Basil McKeague is a deeply religious (though oddly sweary) police detective whose drive to expose sin turns out to be greater than his respect for proper investigatory processes and truthtelling. Kathleen Brankin discovers to her cost that she didn’t ask her husband enough about his past. Loyalist paramilitaries are realised to have much in common with their republic counterparts.

While the motivations for people’s past decisions are wedded in the murky days of the Troubles, O’Doherty also exposes how a Cold Case review process (think HIA in 2020 legacy terms) could be derailed by societal attitudes and personal vendettas. It reminds me of David Park’s The Truth Commissioner, another cautionary tale about the destabilising potential of a truth and reconciliation process.

Radio phone-in host Nevan Toland is as beautifully crafted as top republican Dominic McGrath. Your mind will see parallels with real life figures – which makes Toland even funnier that he is written – but there is also a definite sense that these aren’t cartoon characters. O’Doherty reminds readers not to misuse stereotypes: not everyone living along the Falls Road supported the IRA back in the day.

There are some fictional sleights of hand. Information held by a public service broadcaster for purposes of journalism is exempt from Freedom of Information requests, so party leader McGrath’s idea of getting hold of his BBC obituary via an FOI is a complete non-starter. Just how McKeague knows to turn up at the Welly Park Hotel to visit Kathleen escapes me, as does why Brankin would ever talk so openly on a mobile phone knowing that his position as suspect in a major investigation would likely lead to it being tapped. And the enduring good relationship with Nools is more convenient than it is convincing. But these are minor asides.

O’Doherty exposes the duplicity of politics and political ideology, shows how fear can bind up the vulnerable until their anger overflows, demonstrates the abuse of power and religion, and reinforces the nagging doubt that it’s difficult to separate justice from truth even if there is legislation in place to do so. And he questions how very long we’ll have to wait until guns – and violence – will be absent from our narrative.

Terry Brankin Has a Gun is a well-spun, thoughtful tale that enjoys its foray into past times but also has some dark and critical warnings to flag up about our future. The creaking shelf of Troubles fiction has another tome justifiably squeezed onto it. And O’Doherty’s readers will be wondering which world the talented wordsmith will take them too in his next novel.

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