Book Review: The Twelve by Stuart Neville

The twelve The Twelve by Stuart Neville (Vintage)

In this impressively gripping debut novel, Gerry Fegan is living a miserable life after serving a prison sentence for terrorist murders. Released as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, he’s ravaged by guilt and haunted by the people he killed, spending most of his time in a drunken stupor. The only solution that occurs to his tortured mind in order to get any rest is to do what the ghosts are telling him and kill the people who helped him to murder them. This book tells the story of how Fegan embarks on his self-appointed grim task.

The best parts of this book, for me, concern the transition from a region in which criminal activity was passed off as an acceptable part of a fight for freedom, to one in which those same criminals have had to find a niche in a post-conflict Northern Ireland. Some of them go mainstream and become politicians and the like; others pretty much carry on as before with the same brutal behaviour; while others drift around without a clear role for themselves, and no skills to take part in constructing a future. There is a moral clarity to the author’s writing about these aspects, which I liked very much.

Although I began reading the novel with little interest in the advertised dispatch of fellow-criminals by one of their number, the simple and direct writing style (this is definitely an "easy read"), together with a good pace, drew me in. I was quite absorbed in the first half of the novel, and although I was pretty sure at the outset that everyone in it was doomed, there were some glimpses of possible salvation in the shape of a woman who, in the past as much as the present, had refused to conform to the expected behaviours of the day despite considerable pressures and threats of various kinds. She, together with her young daughter, gives the book life and spirit against a relentlessly grim collection of individuals ranging from the cynical to the worst kind of criminal.

Sadly, the last quarter of the book veers sharply downhill. The author could have taken the narrative in various directions as Fegan nears his end-game. To my mind, he took the least interesting one, which also involves a lot of explicit, nastily imagined violence. Other crime novelists, such as Gene Kerrigan and Brian McGilloway, have incorporated the awful recent history of Irish politics into their books, demonstrating the lasting impact on people and society to the reader without making this the main focus. Stuart Neville takes a much more full-on approach in The Twelve. It’s an interesting one but one that, perhaps due to the emphasis on narrative rather than character, I found unsatisfying – not least because I felt the author backed-off from following his premise to its logical conclusion. Nevertheless, the book is easy to read (if extremely unpleasant, particularly in the last section), and I can see why it has enjoyed so much success. Perhaps in his next novel, the author will be more ambitious with his characters, making them deeper in their promising yet not fully delivered emotional scope, as well as going the full way with his plot.

This novel is the third of three that I recently purchased on a "3 for 2" special offer at Waterstones. The other two are Dark Places by Gillian Flynn and Black Water Rising by Attica Locke.

Read other (rave) reviews of The Twelve (US title – The Ghosts of Belfast) at: Euro Crime (review by Mike Ripley); The Observer; The Guardian; Crime Scene NI; Mysteries in Paradise; International Noir Fiction