Thursday, June 17, 2021

Book 289: Say Nothing


"Seamus started to ask around Belfast. Once, he ventured into a bar on the Falls Road that was known as an IRA hangout. But when he mentioned the name of his mother-in-law, the place went quiet. An old fellow slipped McKendry a bookie’s docket and asked him to go next door to make a bet. On the docket, the man had written: Get away."

Dates read: January 14-19, 2019

Rating: 7/10

We've all said things like "it looks like a bomb went off in here" or "it was like a war zone" without really thinking much about it. The reality is, of course, that most of us in the First World will never experience an active war zone, or see with our own eyes what the aftermath of an explosion looks like. Our lives are comfortably separated from those kinds of incidents. But as recently as the 1990s, there was a place in what's definitely the first world that knew street-level war: Northern Ireland. We saw some clips on tv, listened to U2 and The Cranberries, but (at least for me) knew actually quite little about what was going on and what life was like through the period called The Troubles.

In Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing, The Troubles are explored primarily through the lens of one disappearance: that of Jean McConville, widowed mother of ten. It opens with a startling scene: Jean at home in the evening, trying to relax a little after a full day of work, when masked figures turn up demanding entrance to the apartment. McConville's children try to resist them, but Jean is taken and goes with them. She never returns home. No one will say what's happened to her. We then go back, and forward, to examine how her abduction came to take place, and what became of all the players in the drama afterwards.

There's a lot of information in here: about the origins of the Irish Republican Army and the offshoots that came into being around the time of the fighting (like the Provisional IRA, the one you're probably thinking about when you think about the IRA), the leadership of that group, the eventual rise of Sinn Fein and end of active hostilities. But just as much, it's about people. Dolours Price and her sister Marian, Brendan Hughes, and Gerry Adams from the IRA; and also Jean McConville and her family, how she might have drawn the attention of the IRA, the ways that the sudden and unexplained loss of their mother affected the children as they grew up.

I'll admit I struggled to get oriented in this book at first. I came in with very little background and a lot of the factual stuff, with often confusingly similarly named organizations and groups, is frontloaded. It was hard to get and stay engaged and I honestly found myself turning to Wikipedia quite a bit to get enough context for what I was reading to get my head around it. But once it finished with the set up and dug into the major figures tied up in the disappearing of Jean McConville, it found much more solid ground and got much more compelling. I was left with indelible impressions of Dolours, Brendan, and Gerry, figures who had been completely unknown to me beforehand.

The book prompted me to do a lot of thinking about the porousness of the line between terrorism and revolution, the astonishing power of pure conviction, and the potential of even violent people to turn over a new leaf and be a perfectly normal member of the community. That the members of the IRA thought of the violent methods through which they sought to achieve their aims as justified and that they were military rather than criminal in their killing of other people is obvious. Is this why people like Dolours were able to transition away from their former lives, because she didn't think of herself as a bad person? I always appreciate when a book is able to make me question my assumptions, and if you're interested in learning more about what happened during The Troubles, this book has a lot to offer. But do beware that the beginning is slow and may not provide enough information to really give the kind of context it's clearly looking to. 

One year ago, I was reading: Daughter of Fortune

Two years ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague

Three years ago, I was reading: Sloppy Firsts

Four years ago, I was reading: Shattered

Five years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

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