Friday 20 September 2019

The Ghost Factory: Private, intimate reflection on the violence of the Troubles

Fiction: The Ghost Factory

Jenny McCartney

4th Estate €15.99

Jenny McCartney's novel is a powerful treatment of trauma
Jenny McCartney's novel is a powerful treatment of trauma
The Ghost Factory

Anne Cunningham

'We called our situation the Troubles, and the longer it had dragged on the more fitting that genteel euphemism became." So says Jacky, the protagonist in Jenny McCartney's debut novel, a powerful testament of damage and trauma set in 1990s Belfast. Jacky has never known peace in his home city, only a community divided and terrorised, where "the best way to persuade ordinary folks on the other side of the sincerity of your argument was to build a large stack of their corpses and promise more of the same until your demands were secured". Being as apolitical as most twenty-somethings, reared in violent upheaval or otherwise, Jacky is cynically philosophical about it all. Until it lands on his doorstep, or more accurately on the doorstep of his close friend, Titch.

Titch is enormous, ironically nicknamed because of the bulk of his frame. He's also gentle and quiet and a little "slow". He eats prodigiously, is the apple of his mother's eye and he's been Jacky's friend since their schooldays. He's got an occasional shoplifting habit, though only for sweet things, and early on he's caught by McGee - a local shopkeeper with Loyalist paramilitary connections and a racketeering, vicious adult son - stealing a packet of Jaffa Cakes. Soon afterwards, Titch is dragged from his bed by McGee Junior and his lackeys and a savage beating is meted out, leaving Titch in hospital and permanently disturbed. Jacky's blood is up, but his dead father's old friend, Murdie (one of the more carefully-drawn characters, although a minor one), persuades him to leave things alone.

Some time later, when goaded by McGee Junior in a bar, Jacky lands him a punch that knocks him to the ground. The inexorable consequences for Jacky are horrific. As he's now a marked man he has no choice but to flee Northern Ireland and, with Murdie's help, he heads to London.

"I moved from a place where I mattered, but in the wrong style, to a place where I didn't matter at all. But I knew then that people don't come to an unfamiliar city just to get away from their old homes, but also to escape their old selves." Jacky's problem in London is that he simply can't recover from his PTSD. He's in a sea of strangers with a new job and even a new love interest, but nothing can quell the silent anger that's roasting him alive. Further bad news about poor Titch arrives from Belfast and finally Jacky has had enough. He decides to embark on the path of retribution.

Those of us who witnessed the Troubles through a TV screen are reminded, by this and other novels, that the paramilitaries were just as ready to take out "one of their own" as they were to obliterate the perceived enemy. Thuggery knows no boundaries and despite the peace agreement, it's obvious that Northern Ireland is full of scarred and haunted souls, innocent people uninvolved with the "struggle", whose lives have been permanently tainted by the actions of terrorists.

While the Troubles appear to be having a "moment" these days, we must remember that it's taken more than 20 years of peace to get this far. And as a private, intimate reflection on what it was like to live through the worst years of the violence, this novel is unrivalled.

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