AUTHOR: SUSAN McKAY
Details: Book club read for Dialogues Through Literature Project
This is a horrendous book. It deals with violence, death, grief and pain.
This book is about the victims of the troubles in Northern Ireland. It is about those who lost loved ones and those who survived attacks but wear the scars, both physical and psychological for the rest of their lives. It is a book about Protestants and Catholics, about people who were actively involved in the armed struggle and those who only found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is a book about those left behind, carrying a loss and a pain that never lessens.
When atrocities happen the news media are always eager to talk to the victims or their relatives, to splash the sensational story all over the front pages, catch the headlines and the attention of the rest of the world. Once the news has been reported though, it is no longer news. The reporters move on to the next big story, the next big headline, while the victims suddenly find themselves deserted. The pain of loss as big as ever, the rest of the world suddenly doesn’t want to know anymore.
This book acknowledges the fact that the pain and loss are something the victims carry with them for life. It tells both the stories of the murders and non-lethal attacks as well as the story of the aftermath, of what the survivors are still going though, 5, 10, 20 and even more years after the fact. Suicides, clinical depression, alcoholism, heart-failure, the damage done to those who survived is horrendous and almost unimaginable. It is a story worth telling and a story that should be read by the rest of us who almost never find out what happens after the spotlight switches to the next story. Because, while this is a book about the people who suffered as a result of the troubles surrounding Northern Ireland, this is of course a universal story about all people who ever had to live through violent conflicts, see the devastation and still try to live a “normal” life afterwards.
I remember, years ago, watching a programme on Dutch television about two families from Belfast who had become great friends during a holiday in Spain, only to tell the interviewer how they wouldn’t be meeting each other when they returned home again. Because they were from different religions, it just wasn’t safe to be seen to be friends. I couldn’t get my head around that concept at the time, and if I’m honest, I still don’t completely get it. I don’t think it is possible for anyone who hasn’t lived through the situation to completely get it.
This is a very difficult book to read, the pain and devastation are heartbreaking while, for me, the violence feeding on violence and growing ever bigger and more intense is incomprehensible. It is probably not a book to read back to back without interruption, like I did. Since this was a book club read and there were others waiting to read it after I finished it, I felt I had to keep on going. Were I to advise anybody on the best way to read this book I’d probably tell them to read it in small portions. That way they wouldn’t have to deal with the constant stream of pain and loss, and it would give them time to deal with the feelings these personal stories evoked in them.
As for me, I am glad I read this book. This is a story that needs telling and, more importantly, a book that needs to be read and maybe some of us will take something from the book. Some understanding we didn’t have before, a nuanced view where previously we only saw black and white. If this book opens the eyes of just one person who was blind before it will have achieved its goal.
While most of the book left me with a feeling of despair, the last 30 pages or so did lift me up. The words there seem to indicate that although prejudice and anger are by no means over, there are signs that people, especially the younger generation, have a broader view and a more positive outlook. I hope that is true, and that it is an attitude that’s growing and winning ground because if so then maybe the words that kept on running through my head while I was reading this book won’t apply anymore.
The line I kept on hearing in my head may be from a song written for a different conflict but the words: “men’s blind indifference to his fellow men” seemed to fit what is described here all to well.