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Review: The Abstainer, by Ian McGuire
Random House, 2020. 307 pp. $27

When the law hangs three members of the Fenian Brotherhood for killing a policeman in Manchester, England, in 1867, Constable James O’Connor knows the punishment will solve nothing. The Irish revolutionaries will retaliate, and since he’s the copper who has paid informants among them and understands his countrymen better than his English superiors, officialdom should listen. But they don’t. O’Connor’s place of birth condemns him in their eyes; they consider the Irish bloodthirsty, drunken savages, thieves, and heathens. Besides, O’Connor left the Dublin police under circumstances he won’t talk about, but which have something to do with drink.

Now, however, he abstains, and though his sympathetic, more human approach to law enforcement alternately puzzles and enrages his bosses, he speaks the sober truth no one wants to hear. But he does get them to pay attention when he learns that the New York Fenians have sent an assassin to Manchester to plot revenge for the hangings. Unfortunately, it will take more than O’Connor’s say-so to persuade his superiors to follow through in the ways he suggests, partly because they can’t believe that the drastic legal penalties they have just meted out will fail to curb the violence.

O’Connor has an inkling of what he’s up against, but not even he can anticipate the determination of his newest enemy. Stephen Doyle, though born in Ireland, fought for the Union in the Civil War, and he believes that he’s been sent to Manchester to fight another war whose rules are much the same. A colder, more ruthless and capable opponent would be hard to find, and he startles even his Fenian brethren in Manchester by his attitude. You know that he will give no quarter and expect none.

You also know that sooner or later, O’Connor and Doyle will meet, because the constable does his best to think along with the assassin. However, O’Connor has two distinct disadvantages. He can’t command, merely suggest, whereas Doyle dictates what he wants, and the Fenian foot soldiers obey. Secondly, and more important, O’Connor has a heart, and it’s still reeling from the untimely death of his beloved wife in Dublin. Further, a nephew he barely knows shows up from America and demands to play a role in the surveillance operation — a brilliant stroke of McGuire’s that raises the stakes immediately.

Consequently, this thriller has much more to it than the usual cat and mouse. You do want to know whether O’Connor and the police will thwart Doyle or fail to stop him, though it would be fairer to say that the narrative gives you no choice, compelling you to turn the pages. McGuire’s a terrific storyteller, and “no — and furthermore” lives in the very soot-infested air of Manchester. For me, the tension even feels too much, at times.

“Freedom to Ireland,” an 1866 Currier & Ives lithograph. The Fenian Brotherhood began in the United States and was eventually superseded by similar organizations (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the U.S.)

On top of that, The Abstainer explores an aspect of good versus evil that belongs to every conflict in which some believe that violence is the best or only solution, while others don’t. Naturally, that division fits Irish history under British rule, so though this story takes place in 1867, the same issues would apply in 1967 or beyond. Accordingly, McGuire’s really asking who has the upper hand: the side with fewer scruples or the one claiming the moral high ground? And is the upper hand the better hand to have, or not?

As befits this heady theme, McGuire deploys lucid, hard-edged prose that conveys deep feeling and the raw atmosphere. Early on in the novel, O’Connor witnesses the hanging — he’d rather not, but he’s supposed to be there — and it makes a terrible impression on him:

O’Connor hears the call of a crow like a dry cork being pulled from a bottle and, from over the river, a clatter of cartwheels and the whinny of a horse. For a long moment, the three men stand side by side beneath the heavy oak crossbeam, separate but conjoined, like rough-hewn caryatids, and then with a startling suddenness they are gone. Instead of their breathing, living bodies, there are only the three taught lines of rope like long vertical scratches on the prison wall. The crowd inhales, then gives a long guttural sigh like a wave slowly pulling back from a beach. O’Connor shudders, swallows, feels a pulse of nausea sweep up from his stomach into his mouth.

With this moment and many others, throughout The Abstainer, you see how thin the line between life and death, good fortune and bad. One false move here, and catastrophe would have resulted; one forgetful lapse there, and it arrives unexpectedly. That’s another theme, what happiness depends on, and how fleeting it can be.

If this story sounds bleak, in many ways, it is. But it’s also quite powerful and rings true; this is a novel to remember, and I highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, an online retailer that splits its proceeds with independent bookstores.