Róisín Burns has spent the past twenty years becoming someone else; her life in New York is built on lies. A figure from her Belfast childhood flashes up on the news: Brian Lonergan has also reinvented himself. He is now a rising politician in a sharp suit. But scandal is brewing in Ireland and Róisín knows the truth. Armed with the evidence that could ruin Lonergan, she travels back across the Atlantic to the remote Lamb Island to hunt him down. But Lonergan is one step ahead; when Róisín arrives on the island, someone else is waiting for her…
I was astounded by the incredible balance of narrative, location and characterisation throughout this impressive debut novel from Neary, with all aspects of the book working in complete harmony with one another. No mean feat for a new writer, and showing a degree of skill that some writers take more than a few books to achieve. Set against the reverberating echo of The Troubles, one of the most contentious and defining conflicts of the twentieth century, Neary has constructed a tale that effortlessly intertwines a present and past timeline that slowly uncoils revealing small nuggets of bitter truths, as the reader progresses through Róisín’s compelling and thought provoking story.
As Róisín embarks on her personal mission of retribution, the violent and emotive details of her involvement in a honey trap in her teenage years, resulting in the murder of two soldiers slowly unfolds. Neary demonstrates through her portrayal of Róisín’s adolescent years the prescient dangers and threats of danger that overshadowed the lives of many in Belfast in this tumultuous period, and the skeletons in the closet of Róisín’s family itself. Likewise, the simmering rage and desire for revenge that Róisín harbours for Lonergan himself is never far from the surface, and which reveals itself in a series of flashbacks to his manipulation of her in previous events. Róisín is a wonderfully well-drawn character, and contains a mass of contradictions, as she gravitates between clear-sighted belief in her actions, underscored by moments of incredible sensitivity and self doubt. If ever a character was written to elicit empathy in the reader, Neary has this pretty much spot on, as Róisín is never less than a totally believable and sympathetic character. To further draw on the characterisation of this book, I loved the way that was a certain shadowy pall around the male protagonists, as Neary never really gives the reader a complete picture of their motivations, choosing to keep them to a larger degree, slightly shrouded from our unflinching gaze. If this was a deliberate move on the author’s part it was a wise one as this incompleteness to their definition added a further level of menace to them and their interactions with Róisín herself. Also choosing to set the contemporary story on the grim outcrop of Lamb Island, instead of keeping the action centred in Belfast itself, worked very well. The air of impending violence and fear that Róisín experiences is heightened substantially by the bleakness of the surrounding island landscape, and the isolation of her temporary abode on the island from where she embarks on her vengeful mission.
I was incredibly impressed with this debut, with its pitch perfect mix of extreme human emotions, combined with the resonance of history. Neary has achieved something really quite special. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to PenguinRandomHouse for the ARC)