Two clear streams run through Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing– a gut-wrenching tale of intersecting lives at the centre of the Troubles: that of revolution and that of tragedy. If one is often thought of as glorious and the other, harrowing, this story does much to scramble the distinction. In the kaleidoscopic maze of the Troubles, it seems neither ventures far without the other. They creep and twist a fraught dance, ultimately converging in the ashes of the most vulnerable, the left-behinds.
The story begins and ends in the same place; in the lonely, towering figure of Divis Flats, which crowds over the Catholic neighbourhood of West Belfast. In 1972, Jean McConville, an isolated mother of ten, was rehoused here, only to be taken away one night with a knock on the door. However, one night, there is a knock at the door and Jean is taken away. Within the malaise of the Troubles, Jean’s disappearance becomes symbolic of the slow trains of fate, destiny and retribution, clutching the strands of disparate lives closely together.
In parallel with the unfolding of this narrative, we are introduced to two key characters. Loquacious and strong-willed, Delours Price is a woman at the heart of the organisation responsible for these circumstances. Price’s life ricochets from an initial commitment to peaceful protest, to a bombing campaign and hunger strike, eventually culminating in a steady demise fuelled by abandonment, alcohol and prescription drugs.
In a similar tempo, we meet the young Brendan Hughes; a simple but ‘shrewd and tenacious soldier’, who finds comfort somewhere below the loftier politics of figures such as Gerry Adams, the true IRA command. Within the whipped-up frenzy of the Troubles, these previously conventional lives appear to tiptoe on the brink of something remarkable. Men like Hughes are forced to make life or death decisions, choosing between saving the life of young comrades, or continuing the Hunger strike. Ordinary people ghost around the streets, entangling with love, death, guns and mortality. They take on Thatcher and almost win.
And then suddenly, the chase stops. The glorious hysteria whipped up by quasi-demagogues such as Gerry Adams collapses. Just as Michael Collins had done in 1921, Adams succumbed to a British Treaty. While some would see this as a bastion of peace, others, including Hughes and Price, viewed it as the ultimate betrayal. The little-men were cast out of orbit and Adams, (who, it is claimed in the book, was ‘probably the best friend Hughes had ever had’) vehemently denied ever having been associated with the IRA. The obedience, loyalty and long-game thinking upon which the lives and deeds of Price and Hughes had been premised, quickly tumbled as this softly-spoken, bearded mastermind turned his back on violence. The revolutionaries are left with nothing but a sense of dissipated conviction and the tragedy of their own, endlessly intertwining stories.
This is the most successful and haunting paradox of the book. For as you begin to pity Hughes and Price, left to stew in their broken dreams, you begin to unravel the real circumstances of Jean McConville’s death. The reality is as you probably suspected all along but that does not subtract from its confusing gravity.
Alone in Divis Flats, you feel for Hughes like a child. Stalked by the many images of his hero Che Guevara which plaster his walls, he reflects glumly on his own failed revolution: ‘the boat is away, sailing on the high seas, with all the luxuries that it brings, and the poor people that launched the boat are left sitting in the muck and the dirt and the sand behind.’
For Hughes, Gerry Adams was the one that got away. No less guilty for the crimes that he now denounces, his former comrades are less than fooled by his platitudes and persona. In asking ‘who’s revolution?’, we witness the brotherhood, camaraderie and loyalty quickly strip away. The seas calm, and people like Hughes and Price are left staring bleakly down to its clear depths.