I enjoyed this immensely, it's likely to be in my best three reads of 2009. Two of my favourite authors, James Ellroy and John Connolly, give it a hearty plug on the front cover and they're not wrong in saying that it's "One of the finest thriller debuts of the last ten years". And Ellroy is, I would guess, one of the few writers who actually writes such accolades personally after reading the book cover to cover - so when HE says it's "The best novel I've read in years", I take notice.
I am old enough to remember "The troubles" in Northern Ireland from the very beginning, almost exactly 40 years ago. I have never been there but for anyone of my generation I think it's fair to say that our experience of it is bound to have influenced or even shaped our lives to one degree or another. The Twelve is a work of fiction but with deep roots in the realities of the sufferings on all sides before, during and what we can currently describe as after the troubles. The author Stuart Neville knows his stuff absolutely, or at least that is the impression he left with me. Yet in spite of that knowledge, I couldn't say with certainty from which side of the sectarian divide he originates, because as an observation of the atrocities it comes over as relatively balanced and objective.
I would never have expected to read a book about a Republican assassin and find myself rooting for him, but that is exactly what happened. In a story devoid of heroes in the traditional sense, we have a diverse crew of characters ranging from Westminster politicians to Belfast street thugs and a variety of killers in between such that there are no truly good people anywhere to be seen, priests included. Essentially the story is about one man's self-proclaimed mission to exorcise the ghosts of his own horrific past; a man who has known almost nothing other than murder and solitude all of his adult life. But now, in a very different and peaceful Northern Ireland, he is haunted by images of those whose lives he took away during the worst of times and sets about reconciling himself in the only way he knows.
Although it is a work of fiction, the background to the story is utterly real and the more frightening and depressing because of it. It is a peep into the minds and souls of people who killed for a cause that no longer exists, and an observation of how pointless it was. More than 3500 people died in The Troubles, and although this novel could hardly be described as its legacy, it is nevertheless a fascinating, moving and riveting read into the then and now of Northern Ireland, of the hypocrisies behind the peace process and the motives - mainly financial and political - behind all those who seek to maintain it. Corruption bleeds through the cracks at every level and it is easy to assume that this is a depiction of how things really are at both Westminster and Stormont, while the younger generation of 21st Century Belfast with their new cars and their well-paid jobs have next to no idea of the horrors of what went before them that made all this possible. It is almost as enjoyable as a documentary as a fictional tale, but the tale is too good with so many well-drawn characters that it is easy to immerse oneself in it and easy to become emotionally drawn into it too. It was a story that I felt would be difficult to find a satisfactory conclusion to, thankfully the author didn't take the obvious option and managed to find a way out of the puzzle he had created. The only problem with the ending was the simple fact that it was the end, because I could have read a lot more of it.
There's more to come from Stuart Neville in the shape of The Ghosts of Belfast
in October 2009, but thanks to his kind comment below I now know that it is in fact the same story as THE TWELVE with a different title, for the US market.