I’m always looking for absorbing thrillers, well-written and with something to say about the human condition. I just finished a good one: The Abstainer by Ian McGuire, a thriller set mainly in Manchester, England in 1867. It’s a dark story, filled with the pain of the long war between the Irish and the British. Themes of loss, regret, and betrayal, combined with beautiful writing kept me turning pages. I read it in two sittings.
James O’Connor, a policeman from Dublin, is sent to Manchester to help uncover the plans of the violent Fenian Brotherhood. Personally, it’s his last chance to redeem himself from the alcoholism that wrecked his Dublin career. The British have just hanged three Fenians; they know there will be reprisals. At the same time, the Irish-American Stephen Doyle arrives in Manchester to plan the Fenian Brotherhood’s act of revenge. Doyle served on the Union side in the American Civil War and is well acquainted with death; he’s a cold-hearted, arrogant loner. His first task is to ferret out the informers in the group, then he’ll take revenge for the hangings.
It’s a classic face-off between two driven, intensely motivated men. McGuire takes the reader deep inside O’Connell’s head. All his colleagues know about his ignominious reassignment from Dublin. What they aren’t aware of is that he’s still grieving for his dead wife and son. Doyle, the Irishman bent on retribution, is also struggling with demons; it’s his anger that makes him so dangerous. The story is like a chess game: there are moves and countermoves; some are successful, some are thwarted. O’Connor recruits his nephew to infiltrate the Fenians and then spends sleepless nights worrying about his safety.
The absorbing aspect of the novel is O’Connell’s desperate interior life, which is matched by the dismal Manchester weather, with sky “the color of wet mortar.” I was stopped many times by O’Connell’s trenchant ruminations. Here, he’s worried about the safety of his nephew:
“It occurs to him…that if his son, David, who had died, had lived instead, this is what fatherhood might have felt like: this constant irritating fear, this sense that a vital part of your life is being lived elsewhere, in secret, by someone you may love but can’t possible trust.”
It’s writing like this that kept me reading despite the brutal story. The murderous hatred between the Irish and the British was no fiction; in the next century it would only get worse.