I’m kicking off my Brian Moore Read-Along today with a review of his 1990 thriller Lies of Silence which was a massive critical success at the time and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (losing to Possession by AS Byatt).
Lies of Silence focuses on Michael Dillon, manager of a hotel in Belfast, who is about to tell his fragile wife Moira that he is leaving her for another woman and another city. Dillon is from Northern Ireland, but hates the city and the conflict engulfing it, and wants to return to London to manage a hotel there. His affair with Andrea, a much younger woman, has become serious and he has finally made a decision about his future.
Things go very wrong for Dillon when he and his wife are taken hostage by the Provisional IRA and he is forced into an even worse moral quandary. He must drive a car containing a bomb into the hotel where he works, targeting a conference that will be attended by the Rev. Alun Pottinger (a thinly veiled Ian Paisley). If Dillon does anything to obstruct the terrorists’ plans, his wife Moira will be killed, but if he doesn’t then he will be responsible for the deaths of innocent people.
All of a sudden, Dillon’s domestic difficulties are both heightened and dwarfed by an almost impossible moral dilemma that has a seismic effect on both his personal and professional life. Once made, Michael’s decision leads to yet more painful choices, escalating the tension in a narrative that mirrors the conflict in Northern Ireland. This is a situation in which no one can win.
Dillon felt anger rise within him, anger at the lies which had made this, his…birthplace, sick with a terminal illness of bigotry and injustice, lies told over the years…lies from parliament and pulpits, lies at rallies, and funeral orations, and above all, the lies of silence from those in Westminster who did not want to face the injustices of Ulster’s status quo.
Such is the tautness of Moore’s writing, that to say any more about the plot would be to give away spoilers. The scene in which the IRA hold Moira and Michael hostage is a masterclass in tension, yet the ensuing moral turmoil is as gripping as that one night of terror. People talk of ‘page-turners’ a lot, but this is a book that is genuinely difficult to put down once you have started it. The tension is palpable and Moore sustains it right up until the very last page.
Speaking to the New York Times in 1990, Brian Moore said ‘I wanted the book to read like a thriller, but to be something more…I didn’t want to do a whole book about Northern Ireland, but I did want to talk about how often ordinary people are taken as hostages, their homes invaded – and the moral choices they’re forced to make.’ This is what makes Lies of Silence so much more than a straightforward thriller, or a ‘Troubles’ novel. At the time of writing, Moore had been away from Belfast for many years and while the novel may lack nuance about the situation in Northern Ireland at that time, it benefits from Moore’s distance by portraying a more universal portrait of a city stagnating in backward hate, which then becomes a condemnation of intimidation, terrorism and bigotry.
Moore depicts his IRA terrorists as ‘ignorant bully-boys’ young men with no ideology, just with a need to be on one side or the other. He saves most of his disdain for both Alun Pottinger and a priest who passes messages to Dillon from the IRA, implicating religion – whether Protestant or Catholic – in the moral breakdown of society in Northern Ireland.
This city, with its ugly streets, its endless rain, its monotonous violence, its Protestant predjudice and Catholic cant and, above all, its copycat English ways, incongruous as a top hat on a Tonga king – all of these things he had wanted to flee now lost their power to anger him. Instead in this crowded room, he felt, as people must have felt in wartime, the fellowship of the besieged.
Lies of Silence is, without question, an incredibly successful thriller, but it is also more than that, as Moore wanted. The writing is austere yet assured. It is a dramatic novel, without stooping to theatrics, and has a depth that is not sacrificed for action.
His characters feel real and Moore embraces their complexity, particularly in Moira, Dillon’s prickly and dependent wife. She is a wonderful creation, a woman who has relied on her looks and on her husband for years, yet in the face of terror displays more bravery than her husband – a bravery that will have far-reaching consequences for them both. Who is the better person? The one who speaks up against evil, or the one who stays silent in order to stay safe?
It is possible to read Lies of Silence purely for the distinctly foreboding unease its dramatic plot induces. But the book offers so much more, rewarding the reader with its depth and the strained way in which Moore takes textbook-case ethical quandaries and deploys the techniques of fiction to give them a brooding, provocative twist.
Lies of Silence remains a pertinent exploration of the nature of sacrifice and explores the ramifications of the personal moral dilemmas that arise during conflict.
Why not join in next month when we will be reading Moore’s 1957 novel The Feast of Lupercal.
You can also check out the great events happening throughout the year at the official Brian Moore at 100 website.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 305
NUMBER REMAINING: 441
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!