Liam Kennedy: The pain of others
Co Down-born novelist Jenny McCartney's searing depiction of a paramilitary 'punishment' attack should be read by anyone concerned with our baleful record of human rights violations, says Liam Kennedy
The Ghost Factory is Jenny McCartney's debut novel and it is different. It is different even as a Troubles novel, though it is much more than that.
"Punishment" beatings and shootings have been touched on in other works of fiction, but they have not normally taken centre-stage. It is true Seamus Heaney wrote allusively about the tarring and feathering of young women - a cut-price, early IRA enterprise - merging violent images from contemporary Irish and pre-historic Nordic experience.
Anna Burns, in her acclaimed novel Milkman, brings to our senses the claustrophobic atmosphere and odour of fear induced by masked gunmen shadowing working-class communities in north Belfast (and elsewhere in the world), but the plotline is driven by other concerns.
Ricky O'Rawe's recent thriller Northern Heist, based loosely on the Northern Bank raid of Christmas 2004, has one of its less-savoury characters sentenced to a "punishment" shooting, but this is incidental to the main action.
The Ghost Factory, possibly set in a fictionalised version of the Village area of Belfast in the mid-1990s, reeks of unaccountable paramilitary power and a ready resort to violence.
The protagonist, Jacky, reflects: "No one ever really believes in something bad until it happens. Not even the one who predicts it."
This may help explain why some victims of loyalist and republican paramilitary violence do not make the imaginative leap when under threat and fail to get the hell out of Northern Ireland, or at the very least out of their own neighbourhood.
It is Jacky's friend Titch, an obese, lazy, but good-hearted figure, living alone with his emotionally and materially deprived mother, who gets "done" first. "A big, soft eejit", as someone described him.
His crime: a minor altercation with a shopkeeper over a packet of Jaffa Cakes he was in the act of stealing. Unfortunately for him, Mr McGee is connected.
His son, a loyalist paramilitary with a taste not just for drink but also for violence, takes it upon himself, with the aid of three other vigilantes, to mete out retribution.
Titch is duly dragged from his bedroom late one night, taken to a piece of waste ground and battered with baseball bats. The oppressive reality is that something like this has happened not hundreds, but thousands of times in Northern Ireland since the outbreak of the Troubles at the end of the 1960s.
It is part and parcel of the Irish Terror (a less euphemistic translation of the term 'Troubles'). The sequel is sometimes suicide, as in the Cityside in Londonderry last month, or as evidenced by a string of suicides in Ardoyne in Belfast a few years ago, following a phase of intense paramilitary intimidation.
Jacky is by now a barman in a local pub. At closing time one evening he overhears the drunken boasting of McGee jnr, mimicking how his friend Titch was "squealing for his ma-a-a-mmy" as they forced him to the place of "punishment".
A rush of blood to the head. Jacky leaps from behind the bar and flattens McGee with a straight punch. He is now in big trouble with the paramilitaries. Hard men have weak egos. Jacky goes into hiding. Like hundreds of others over the years, he resolves to disappear to England. In the dead of night he pays one last visit to his home to collect some belongings. Another big mistake.
McCartney relates the unfolding horror, getting inside the mind of the victim in a manner that has no parallel in fictional accounts of the Troubles.
Clearly, she has listened to victims of paramilitary terror and has an empathetic understanding of the kinds of trauma visited on the defenceless.
As the masked men invade the privacy of the bedroom Jacky attempts one last, useless act of resistance, throwing a lamp at one of the intruders. That's it.
"My arms and legs liquefied with fear. It is an awful thing to feel yourself utterly powerless. It takes you into a place where very few people ever get to go, and it is difficult ever to come back fully from there... Something terrible is going to happen to you, you know it is, and there is nothing you can do to change it."
Now that we know much more about post-traumatic stress disorder, we know it is indeed hard "to come back fully from there".
In hospital, with broken ribs, a dislocated jaw and a disfigured face, Jacky was told he'd got off lightly compared to many others the doctors had seen. In a sense he had.
In the same ward was a 16-year old Catholic 'joyrider'. He had been "done" by formal appointment. Not to turn up would have meant something worse.
But the Provos had botched the beating and his right leg was shattered and now held together with steel pins. Jacky wondered what it must have felt like as the clock ticked away and the hour of appointment drew near.
Like many others, after release from hospital, Jacky takes refuge in London. Unlike most other exiles, he resolves on vengeance.
The trigger was more bad news from home on top of the recurring nightmares. The answer to his pain struck him with remarkable clarity: he must return to Belfast and kill McGee.
Strange as it may seem, there is much humour coursing through the novel. One of my favourite scenes is where Titch's mother is being counselled after the attack on her son.
To achieve "full closure", she was assured, Titch needed to stop behaving like a victim and forgive his attackers.
The rather prim counsellor was perplexed when the mother replied that "she had a First World War bayonet, a family heirloom, and that she would first like to 'achieve full closure' with the backsides of his assailants".
The final "vengeance" chapters ripple with surreal humour, but, of course, it is necessary to get the book itself to see what eventually transpires. It is not easily predictable, though there is redemption of a kind.
For those concerned with the everyday practice of human rights violations in Northern Ireland, The Ghost Factory is a landmark in the literature of the Irish Terror.
It is about "the pain of others", as the writer Susan Sontag might put it. But it is also about the universal qualities of empathy, friendship, humour, faithfulness and erotic love.
In short, the many faces of love, but set against a backcloth of balaclavas and baseball bats and dreams of another life in another place.
- Liam Kennedy is emeritus professor of economic history at Queen's University, Belfast. He is a founder member of Children of the Troubles, which campaigns against paramilitary attacks on children