Fiction and The Troubles: Three Books About Northern Ireland
‘The Troubles’ — the forty-year conflict that raged in Northern Ireland — is a massive part of the United Kingdom’s history. And yet people of my generation (twenty-somethings who grew up after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement) know very little about it. We weren’t taught about it in school, and even though the IRA crop up in the mainstream news occasionally, many still aren’t sure what they stand for.
Since the Brexit vote in 2016 however, tensions are ramping up again. Old wounds around the border situation have reopened. 2019 saw both the trial of a British soldier involved in the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1972 and the murder of journalist Lyra McKee by the New IRA, and both investigations are still ongoing. There’s no better time to be aware of Northern Ireland’s history.
It’s no surprise that Northern Ireland’s rich literary history is entwined with The Troubles. There are plenty of non-fiction texts one could read to learn about the war, but amidst the facts and political sloganeering, the stories of real, ordinary people often get lost.
Fiction-loving publishing hopefuls will be interested in the way novels present and explore those realities. So here are three books — all by Northern Irish writers — which bring nuanced, refreshing and unique portrayals of everyday life both during and after The Troubles. If you love fiction and are interested in how the war continues to effect Northern Ireland’s people — and the UK itself — then these are an excellent starting point.
Lies of Silence by Brian Moore (Nan A. Talese, 1990)
Published in 1990 at a time of heightened paranoia and distrust in Northern Ireland, Lies of Silence is a brisk and nail-biting thriller. Michael Dillon is a Hotel Manager in Belfast who wants nothing to do with the conflict, but when he’s blackmailed by the IRA into driving a bomb to a hotel where a militant Protestant reverend is speaking, he’s plunged into a world of shadows and moral dilemmas.
Oftentimes, we’re told that divisions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are inherent. Everybody has a view, and everybody hates the other side. But Lies of Silence highlights the untruth in that depiction. Ordinary people might have been defined by the violence going on around them, but many of them wanted no part in it. Moore’s novel is classic storytelling — a linear narrative from the time that tells us how those people were the real victims, let down by both their communities and the British government.
Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber And Faber, 2018)
Anna Burns’ Man Booker Prize-winning Milkman is essentially a surrealist coming-of-age story about love, femininity and sinister unrequited sexual advances, but its backdrop is a working-class Republican community in 1970’s Belfast, where neither the city nor characters are named, and enemies of the state are ‘renouncers’ rather than the IRA.
From an educational perspective, it’s pretty valuable. There are direct references to internment camps, retaliatory killings, Oliver Cromwell and ‘the 800-years war’, all of which hung over Northern Ireland at the time with terrible consequences. But Burns — through dry, subtly universal stream-of-consciousness writing — expertly exposes the way the lives of ordinary people were entwined with The Troubles, whether they wanted them to be or not. As community-based suspicions creep into our protagonist’s relationships, we’re shown how complex young women like her are stifled by their surroundings. At one point she writes that “part of normality here was this constant, unacknowledged, struggle to see.” It’s a brilliantly creative yet direct portrayal of the fractures that still — four decades on — need healing.
Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (Stinging Fly Press, 2018)
Set in contemporary East Belfast — a largely Protestant part of the city — Wendy Erskine’s short story collection isn’t so much about The Troubles as it is informed by them. Written with a classically, wry sense of humour and real human sensitivity, these are stories about broken families, heartbreak, loneliness and missed opportunities.
Yet, the trauma of the conflict is never far away. In ‘To All Their Dues’ we meet Kyle, a loyalist paramilitary trooper struggling to deal with toxic masculinity and the violence of his past. In ‘Arab States: Mind and Narrative’, the academic Ryan Hughes looks to conflicts elsewhere to rationalise the situation that has dominated his life. And in ‘Lady and Dog’, the elderly Olga clings on to generational anti-Catholic bias whilst attitudes change around her. These are bleak, often funny stories that show — without telling — the lasting impact of The Troubles (both positive and negative) to this day.