Espionage, fidelity, the Troubles and explosive family secrets
Acts of Allegiance
Sandstone Press, paperback, 275 pages, €13.99
The heart always sinks slightly at the prospect of another book about the Troubles, but Peter Cunningham's latest novel, Acts of Allegiance, manages to convert what could have been a bleak and familiar tale into an exciting one of espionage, infidelity, family secrets and betrayal.
The book's narrator is Marty Ransom, an Irishman educated in England. The story moves back and forth between Marty's childhood in 1950s Waterford, and his adult life as a civil servant, and a spy, in Dublin.
Ransom is of interest to the British government because his cousin, Iggy Kane, is one of the top bomb-makers in Armagh. Alison Chase, a British embassy employee, befriends Marty in an effort to convince him to entrap his cousin, and she is willing to use everything at her disposal to persuade him.
Meanwhile, Marty's wife, the beautiful Sugar, is left out in the cold, dissatisfied by the distant Marty and suspicious of the secret conversations he has with Alison.
The era covered here, spanning the 1950s to early 1980s, is tinged with lost innocence. Cunningham captures the time well and neatly aligns Ransom's coming of age with the political coming of age in the North.
While the novel is very much set in its historical time and place, it is intriguing to read it from the current political precipice - a Northern Ireland without government and a United Kingdom poised on the edge of Brexit. It all starts to take on a different aspect in that light.
Cunningham uses retrospect very well, giving the reader a few wry chuckles when writing about the up-and-coming politician Charles Haughey or the future political situation in Northern Ireland: "Mark my words, one day the balaclavas will be wearing the suits, sitting around a table, discussing money and who gets what government portfolio."
The book is laid out in overlapping chapters, hopping back and forth between early memories of Marty's childhood, and current events in the 1970s. This is tough enough to keep track of at the start, but after a while the reader gets a grip on who is who, and in which decade. Still, I'm not sure the reader should have to work that hard so early on.
Most interesting of all is the fact that there is a true story somewhere at the heart of this book - the author discovered, only as an adult, that his own father had been a spy providing information on possible IRA operatives in the 1940s.
For all its glitzy espionage plotlines, this is a novel of ideas, with musings on themes such as how we are shaped by our childhoods, what our sexual relationships mean to us, fidelity, identity, and how much we can really know ourselves, or anyone else.
Cunningham's writing is allusive, and at times the plot can seem like a pushy guest elbowing its way into a genteel party. It's hard not to think that this tale might have worked better as a straightforward, contemplative narrative on loyalty, without the extra bells and whistles of provos and border ambushes. Still, it's a satisfying read that fans of the spy genre will enjoy.