Despite being born and bred in Northern Ireland and living through the Troubles, fiction about the conflict doesn’t usually appeal to me but Annemarie Neary’s debut novel Siren explores the psychological fallout of those turbulent years and raises complex questions about the nature of identity, collusion and guilt.
Roísín Burns was sure she had left her past behind. At the age of sixteen, she unwittingly acted as a ‘honey trap’ which resulted in the death of a soldier and once embroiled in the world of terrorists, she turned a blind eye to save herself. She is both victim and perpetrator and has spent the last twenty years creating a new life for herself in New York.
But she literally comes face to face with her past when she sees Brian Lonergan on the TV in her local bar. He has created a new life for himself as well and the IRA boss of her youth is now a rising politician trying to hide the truth that Roísín knows could bring him down.
Lonergan had acquired a tone of self-importance, as if he’d grown to expect the things he used to have to grab
Unable to hold back her guilt and anger about what happened all those years ago in Belfast, Roísín returns to Ireland, to the remote Lamb Island to confront Lonergan hoping in the process to save herself.
Siren is a very accomplished psychological thriller that marries plot, setting and characterization perfectly. As the book goes back and forward between the past and the present, from Belfast to New York and back again, Neary builds a fascinating picture of the toll that a life of lies can take on a person.
In the years since leaving Belfast, it’s always been her way to censor the first thing that comes into her head. The next one is nearly always good enough, even if it isn’t actually true.
Roísín, devastated by the death of her mother and the collapse of her marriage, finally can’t take the lies any longer and decides that the only way to overcome her past is to confront it head on.
Roísín is a fascinating character; complex and contradictory, focused, but full of self-doubt. Her need to expose the truth about Lonergan and what he has done in the past stems as much from a wish for justice as it does her own self-vindication. Neary doesn’t shy away from reminding us of what Roisin was involved in and as the book slowly reveals the hidden truths about her past, her story becomes more compelling. The novel perfectly captures one of the painful truths about the Troubles, that there were many people who were involved through no fault of their own, who are still trying to make sense of their actions many years later.
She’d searched her own face, night after night, for traces of what she’d done, but her eyes looked as clear blue as ever. She glanced at the driver’s hands and wondered why they looked so ordinary. Why did none of the things he’d done show up on the surface? Was there a terrible itch beneath the skin? A tic in the eye?
Roísín is not the only character hiding things below an ordinary surface. Lamb Island is filled with people hiding their past, pretending to be something they aren’t, or clinging on to who they used to be. There is the charismatic Theo who may have been involved in the disappearance of a young girl, and Boyle, the aging hippy, squatting in the old school house and doing odd jobs for Lonergan, who manages to remain sympathetic even at his worst. There is a vague sense of shadowy menace around all the characters and around the isolated island setting that adds to the tension and Neary is clever enough to keep a lot of details to herself, letting the reader fill in the blanks, just as Roísín has to.
Once you’re off the island, you lose control of how things might pan out. There are as many bastards on an island as anywhere else, but at least you know who they are
Answers aren’t always forthcoming and the question is constantly raised of where truth lies and who it belongs to.
Roísín’s mission seems single-minded, admirable even. She will expose Lonergan for what he was and for what he has done. She will tell the truth. Yet that truth is muddied. To tell his truth is to tell her own and face up to the acts that she was involved in. And what will that achieve? Roísín feels it will bring her peace, but in doing so, may fracture the peace of her home country. As a politician, Lonergan is doing good work, moving the country away from the violence of the past. Should that be jeopardised? As with the real Peace Process, concessions often have to be made to bring about change. As Roísín’s sister Maura says
If it was up to Da they’d still be bombing pubs. At least Lonergan’s a pragmatist. He knows there’s no sense in war. And people listen to him
It is the age old question of individual justice versus the common good and Neary effectively explores whether or not good can come from a body of lies, both for a person and for a country. Can we ever escape our past, no matter how much we want to? Or are some things too painful to outrun?
The night with the soldiers flooded back: the dirt and the cheat of it, the grimy meanness of it. The noise and the hate and the desperation to hang on to whatever it is that makes you take one breath after another. Then, all quiet. Over. Gone for good.
Siren is an incredibly well written thriller – tense, unflinching and thought-provoking, and a piercing insight into how our past shapes us no matter how hard we try to bury it. This is a very assured debut.
I received a copy of Siren from the publisher through Netgalley in return for an honest review.