Review Blog

Sep 10 2020

The abstainer by Ian McGuire

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Simon and Schuster, 2020. ISBN: 9781471163609.
(Age: Senior secondary/Adult) Highly recommended. In 1867, three members of the Fenian Brotherhood were hanged in Manchester for the murder of a policeman. McGuire imagines a story of revenge flowing from this event as an Irish American man with a heart set on retribution is brought to Manchester fresh from the bloody Civil War that had engulfed the USA in previous years. He must keep himself well hidden, knowing the local police have a network of informers. Within a day of his landing he has killed three of these men, sending a brutal message to others who may be tempted to help the police.
Constable James O'Connor, brought over from Dublin to help the Manchester Police find this man, is under suspicion from the start: his accent, his sympathy with the Irish cause, his recent history with his superiors, all contrive against him. His dead wife and child form a cross he carries and and he must fight his need to resort to drink.
The paths of Doyle and O'Connor are destined to cross as one seeks mayhem and the other justice for his dead informer.
McGuire captures the atmosphere within the city of Manchester with impressive detail. Poverty is ever present as O'Connor walks the streets, visits people in their slum accommodation, talks to his superiors, all the while noting the vast difference between Irish and English with detail about food, housing and access to work.
We meet all sorts in McGuire's Victorian Manchester from the pimps to the well healed, the prostitutes and drunks who inhabit the pubs, the informers, corrupt police, and those who want the case to be wrapped up quickly, so putting O'Connor at odds with his own organisation. After the hasty hangings at the beginning of the novel, sympathy lies with the Fenians struggling to free Ireland from the British overlordship but their methods alienate O'Connor and the reader. Both men struggle with the burden of their pasts, and their contest makes for involving reading. Themes: Crime, Manchester (UK), Fenian Society, Revenge.
Fran Knight

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