When I picked up Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast I thought the ghosts described were metaphorical. After all, what former killer for the IRA doesn’t have the “ghosts” of his victims following him around? We meet the protagonist, Gerry Fegan, drinking in a pub, trying to drown out the voices and sight of the quite literal ghosts that have been following him around since just before he got out of Her Majesty’s Maze Prison. There are eleven of them, and they let him know that the only way to get rid of them is to get revenge on the people who caused their deaths.
Gerry’s ghosts and his memories take the reader on a trip through the violent history of the Troubles, while letting us know that the bad times aren’t as over as they seem to be. Catholics and Protestants still hate each other, almost as much as Republicans and Unionists do. As Gerry goes after Republicans and undercover Scots, members of the provisional government and law enforcement try to hunt him down and stop him before Gerry destroys the Good Friday Agreement. This makes Gerry sound like a violent psychopath, but he’s not. In spite of everything, he’s a good man. He argues with his ghosts to try and spare lives, but they are relentless in getting what they want.
The writing in this book is incredible, with a wonderfully drawn cast of heroes and villains (and some characters who are a bit of both). I felt for Gerry. He’s good at killing people, yes, but all he wanted was to stop and go on with his life. Neville gives you the necessary history without letting the pace of the book bog down. (Though I will admit that I spent a lot of time on Wikipedia looking things up. I couldn’t help myself.) Even though I knew roughly what was going to happen, I couldn’t predict where each subsequent chapter would go. I didn’t even know if Gerry would live long enough to get the ghosts their revenge. This an amazing first novel by an author I hope has a long career.