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


5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Twelve by Stuart Neville

  1. Maxine – Lovely review; thank you for it :). It’s funny, I hadn’t planned to read this one, simply because, like you, I wasn’t prepared to like a book about criminals killing each other off. But you’ve sold me – and you said you’re not evil ; )….

  2. I’m always interested in seeing how differently each of us reviews a novel Maxine. This was a good book, and I do agree with oyu about the nding.

  3. Oh, gosh, part of my family heritage is Irish; can’t there ever be uplifting, human stories, even mysteries about Ireland? I’d like to think that there can be good resolutions to conflicts. Even though this is mystery fiction, does it all have to be saturated with lots of violence? How about whodunnits? Puzzles? I’m not going to read this one.

  4. Winterland by Alan Glynn is a superb book set in Ireland. One of my (few) five star books so far this year. Also I highly recommend Gene Kerrigan (dark, dark, dark) and Brian McGilloway (police procedurals) as two authors whose books I love and are set in Ireland (Eire and the Borders, respectively).

  5. I have just finished this one and about all I can say is I won’t be rushing to read the sequel (the plot of which I predicted before reading the synopsis). For me the interesting parts of the book were overwhelmed by the unrelenting violence. I know it was a tough setting and I wasn’t expecting puppy dogs and rainbows but this was just bloody grim.
    I shall look forward to Winterland instead (it’s here on my TBR pile).

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