Book review: “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” by Patrick Radden Keefe

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Book review: “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” by Patrick Radden Keefe

I’m at a loss about the newly published Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe.

As a reader, I find that, sometimes, books just hit me the wrong way.  I think everyone who reads has this experience.  When it occurs, I’m often not sure if I’m the problem or the book is the problem. 

So, it might be that I’ve got a blind-spot here or just wasn’t in the mood to read Say Nothing.  So, take what I write with a grain of salt.

On the plus side, this work by Keefe, a New Yorker staff writer, is a real page-turner.  He knows how to pull the reader through his story, and I found that, even as I started to have qualms about Say Nothing, I kept ripping along as if this were almost a thriller.

My qualms

My qualms began maybe 100 pages into the 348 pages of text, and they had to do with questions about what kind of a story I was reading.

If you pay attention to the subtitle, this book is A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.  Its first chapter tells the story of the 1972 abduction of 38-year-old Jean McConville, a mother of ten children, from her family’s apartment in a Belfast public housing project.  The perspective here is that of the children, ranging in age from six to mid-teens, who witnessed it.

OK, so, on the face of it, the account that Keefe seems to promise from that chapter and from his subtitle is one that will tell the “true story” and explain why McConville was kidnapped and by whom and what happened to her.

The mystery of the disappearance

Well — spoiler alert! spoiler alert! — the mystery of that disappearance is never fully explained. 

Keefe does have on record the names of two of the three people who drove McConville to her execution and carried it out, and he makes what seems to be a good guess as to who the shooter was, of the three. 

Huge questions, however, remain.  Ostensibly, McConville was put to death for being an informant against the Provisional Irish Republican Army.  Was she?  By the end of the book, Keefe has to leave that question hanging.

Even more important, Keefe does everything he can to indicate that he thinks that Gerry Adams — an IRA leader who later became a successful politician while denying his earlier IRA leadership and membership — gave the order to have McConville killed.

That would be explosive stuff if Keefe could nail down proof. 

But he can’t, and that’s another question he leaves hanging.

Disappeared

McConville is famous in Northern Ireland as one of about 20 people whom the Provos kidnapped, executed and buried in unmarked graves, leaving behind nagging questions for family and friends of what had happened to them. 

These “disappeared” are a dark part of the fabric of the Troubles, the Northern Ireland conflict between violent Catholics and violent Protestants.  In other countries around the world, however, the number of “disappeared” rose into the thousands, Keefe notes, such as in Chile where more than 3,000 were taken, killed and hidden in this way.

What’s odd is that it isn’t until two-thirds of the way through the book that Keefe mentions the “disappeared.”  Up until then, he treats the McConville kidnapping as an individual violent event in the midst of a war with many violent events caused by both sides.

Indeed, by that point, despite the subtitle and the initial chapter, Keefe had precious little to say about McConville.  As a reader, I was getting the feeling that he had chosen this very poignant scene of a mother being dragged away from her kids as a jarring and powerful way to start his book, but not as its central subject.

The central subject of the book

It isn’t until eight pages from the end that Keefe tells what the real subject is:

“In the intertwining lives of Jean McConville, Dolours Price, Brendan Hughes, and Gerry Adams, I saw an opportunity to tell a story about how people become radicalized in their uncompromising devotion to a cause, and about how individuals — and a whole society — make sense of political violence once they have passed through the crucible and finally have time to reflect.”

Price and Hughes were key IRA fighters and were famous for their violent activities.  Adams, it seems, was always behind the scenes in such murders and bombings but, according to Keefe, never took part in the violence.

By this point, I’d already gotten the impression that McConville wasn’t the focus of the story, and that her kidnapping was being used as an authorial pawn in beefing up the energy and snap of Keefe’s story.

Keefe’s story

That story focuses a great deal on the history of Price, in and out of the IRA, and of Hughes, because each gave statements to an oral history project out of Boston College in the U.S. on the understanding that their statements — like others taking part in the project to get the memories of those involved in the Troubles — would remain secret until after their deaths.

Well, that didn’t happen.  Eventually, Northern Ireland police came to get copies of many of these statements in an effort to solve crimes, such as murder and kidnapping, that were still open after many decades.  Keefe himself got a copy of at least one of these statements.

My problem

So here’s my problem:  Keefe, it appears, is trying to tell the stories of Price, Hughes and Adams and the story of the Troubles (from the Catholic side of the violence), and use the McConville kidnapping as an illustration (as if there weren’t dozens of much more violent bombings and killings), and use the secret archive at Boston College as a news peg, and wrestle with a few of the moral questions that involvement in such a conflict entails, and attempt (unsuccessfully) to solve the mystery of McConville’s disappearance to bring home to roost a crime that, Keefe heavily suggests, Adams was guilty of, and write a page-turner that will sell as lot of books.

For me, it didn’t work.  For others, maybe it does.  More power to them.

For me, Say Nothing is an awkward conglomeration of a great many aspects of the story of the Troubles that failed to deal head-on with a society-wide war that touched and tainted the lives of a generation of Northern Irish. 

The conflict, it seemed to me, got obscured behind the personal stories of Price, Hughes, Adams and, to a much lesser extent, McConville.

It seems a writer’s miscalculation.

Patrick T. Reardon

4.3.19

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