Punishment, psychological trauma and imperfect healing
Fiction: The Ghost Factory
Fourth Estate, hardback, 295 pages, €16
In fiction and television, Northern Ireland is having a moment. Jenny McCartney's debut novel, set in Belfast and London in the mid-1990s, comes in the wake of several other recent novels - by Geraldine Quigley, David Keenan and Booker Prize-winning Anna Burns among others - in which the Troubles loom large. Channel 4's Derry Girls, now in its second series, is also an international hit, but even in the context of Northern Ireland's cultural resurgence, The Ghost Factory differentiates itself in a couple of ways.
For a start, it's not so much a Troubles novel as a ceasefire novel in which paramilitary power and violence are still a reality. McCartney, who grew up in Northern Ireland and now works as a journalist in London, tracks how a seemingly trivial incident has a series of catastrophic consequences for her main character, Jacky.
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Her focus is on the impact of punishment beatings, the physical damage and psychological trauma that, for Jacky, lead to shame, rage, alienation and a desire for revenge.
In his early twenties, Jacky has "anorexia of the soul". His lifelong friend Titch - a 20-stone "big soft eejit" - is the closest thing he has to proper family. Soon after Titch is caught stealing a packet of Jaffa Cakes from the shop of a loyalist hardman, he is dragged from his house in the middle of the night and brutally beaten. Jacky is sickened, especially because Titch is so broken. One night, the shop owner's son comes into the bar where Jackie works and taunts him about Titch's beating. Jacky hits him and is immediately a marked man.
Despite trying to evade his fate, Jacky, like Titch, is taken in the night, gagged and brought to waste ground where he is attacked with nail-studded baseball bats and told to get out of the city.
In exile in London, his face permanently scarred, he struggles to establish a new life. He falls in love but his past and his undiagnosed PTSD endanger the relationship. When he gets bad news from home, he decides to go back and mete out his own form of justice.
Up to this point, The Ghost Factory is gripping and largely believable. The portrait of Titch, affectionate and unsentimentalised, is particularly memorable. McCartney's vivid, rhythmic prose captures Jacky's ambivalent feelings about home, a home he appreciates only in retrospect.
On one level, The Ghost Factory is a love letter to Belfast: "... baptised in tea and drizzle, sprinkled with vinegar-sodden chips and cigarette butts."
The tone is often elegiac, as when Jacky describes the light on the way to Aldergrove airport - "oddly intense, like a pale yellow stone set in dark granite" - the kind of light he used to think could be found everywhere.
McCartney is good at creating a sense of burgeoning dread, and excellent at depicting the difficulties of maintaining a relationship when both parties have serious baggage. Jacky's girlfriend, Eve, is a great character - spiky, resilient, funny and original - but she is underused, appearing only to disappear again, then reappear all too briefly.
The novel begins to lose its way once Jacky returns to Belfast and his behaviour becomes increasingly random. Incidents that should ratchet up tension instead stretch credibility and rather than ending the novel once the drama has unfolded, McCartney keeps going.
The final 50 pages are less like the narrative that preceded them and more like a summary of Jacky's later life and a reflection on Northern Ireland that is part history lesson, part lecture, part lament. While there was some exposition closer to the beginning - a couple of paragraphs for readers unfamiliar with the Troubles - the final third of the book means that the world that has been evoked wanes.
It's a shame because there's much to admire in McCartney's work - not least its evocation of a fraught peace; it shows how scarily easy it is for the characters to come to the attention of the paramilitaries, even if they're averse to the conflict. In the novel, it's largely irrelevant that Jacky comes from a loyalist background. One of the strongest sections covers his experience in hospital following the attack. His favourite wardmate is the victim of an IRA punishment beating.
Before Jacky leaves, the men exchange the names of their attackers - a powerful moment full of intimacy and trust, symbolising the imperfect healing that McCartney's novel explores.