I read Stuart Neville’s The Twelve for Reading Ireland Month back in March and was impressed with a thrilling, well-paced crime novel that perfectly depicted a Northern Ireland trying to come to terms with life after the ostensible end of the Troubles.
His new novel Those We Left Behind, he has moved on immeasurably from The Twelve, featuring both a new lead protagonist – DCI Serena Flanagan and a Belfast that is no longer defined by sectarian sides. It is interesting that as Northern Ireland moves on from the violence that has plagued its past, Neville should look more to the psychological thriller and explore a different type of violence and anger from that which has grabbed the headlines for the last four decades. Those We Left Behind is a strong police procedural, with an intriguing lead character, but is also a subtle study in the pain that can be suffered upon and is suffered during childhood.
Ciaran Devine is being released from a young offender’s centre after serving seven years for the brutal murder of his foster father, which he claimed was in retaliation for sexual abuse perpetrated on his brother Thomas. Thomas was charged as an accessory, but DCI Flanagan, after forming a bond with the boy, always felt that Ciaran was taking the blame for his older, colder brother.
Ciaran’s release is far from easy on anyone connected to the original crime. Serena Flanagan is determined to find out why Ciaran took the blame for his brother, putting her career and her family in harms way in the process. Ciaran’s probation officer Paula Cunningham finds herself in danger when she too tries to look closer at the case and keep Ciaran away from what she sees as the malign influence of his brother Thomas and Daniel Rolston, son of the murdered man, is thrown into turmoil by the boy’s release which sparks a devastating spiral into grief and rage.
Serena Flanagan is also battling her own demons, having just returned to work following surgery for breast cancer and is struggling to keep her family and personal life on track. She is a fascinating character – flawed, complex and stubborn – pushing the boundaries when she needs to and following her gut instinct even when it puts her in danger. Her strength and her vulnerability co-exist perfectly and Neville uses both these traits to push the story along.
The unrelenting narrative is peppered with flashbacks, showing us how the relationship between Flanagan and Ciaran has developed, from their initial meeting while she investigated the murder of his foster father, through to his current obsession with her and her attempts to prove that he was unfairly charged. Neville balances this insight well, giving the reader emotional depth and impact without sacrificing any suspense. The writing is clear and resonates with tenderness and in particular Ciaran’s return to the outside world is examined with a subtle poignancy which reminds us that freedom can bring as much fear as happiness.
The breeze is strange on his skin. And the light. Ciaran can feel the light, as if he could split apart the colours, his skin knowing one from the other. He is outside in the world and he doesn’t know how to feel
But where Neville really excels is in the depiction of the relationship between the brothers, Ciaran and Thomas. We know something is very, very wrong here, their fractured painful childhood creating fractured men who are in still in pain. These are not children of a political struggle, but of a more universal and recognisable struggle against the circumstances and failures of their upbringing. Ciaran, we are reminded, has not experienced the Troubles. Their loyalty is not to one side or the other, but is only to one another and as chilling and horrifying as their co-dependent relationship is, Neville is a compassionate enough writer to remind us that these are not children born evil, but victims in their own twisted way.
Ciaran can’t hold it back anymore. The tears come, hot and thick, wetting the pillow against his cheek. Thomas holds him tighter, whispers beautiful worlds that glitter in Ciaran’s mind like silver
In a strange way, Those We Left Behind is a more frightening book that The Twelve because the violence is at less of a remove. This may not be the Northern Ireland of terrorists and politicians, but the country still plays a key role in the story and the detail in the locations makes for a satisfying read, particularly when a murder occurs near to where I once lived at University, or a suspect is taken for questioning to Antrim Police Station, situated opposite my place of work. From Lisburn to Botanic Gardens and through to the stunning denouement on a beach near Newcastle, Neville makes the landscape of Northern Ireland work for his story.
This may be the book to take Stuart Neville to a new level. It is an incredibly well-written novel that is both thrilling and moving, suspenseful and compassionate. In its scope, it reminds us that violence often ripples through time and through many lives, creating repercussions that we cannot imagine and a lasting aftermath that can be devastating. It may not be an uplifting book, but it does glimmer with flashes of hope, reminding us that the influence of good people has the potential to pull us back from the brink and break the cycle of violent behaviour.
I was given a copy of Those We Left Behind from the publishers through Net Galley in return for an honest review.