Nonfiction audiobooks are my jam. In fact, I used to ONLY listen to nonfiction on audio. However, I recently have branched out more and have been pleasantly surprised that there are actually a whole world of amazing audiobooks out there across all genres.
Still, when I hear about a nonfiction audiobook, I automatically gravitate towards listening rather than reading and that was how I experienced this one – as an audiobook.
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Book Review for Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Mystery in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
This is the (true) story of the disappearance of Jean McConville. She was a widowed mother of ten and living in Belfast during an extremely tumultuous time: Northern Ireland’s conflict with Great Britain, also known as “The Troubles.” The book opens with a description of her case along with her last known whereabouts and speculation concerning the I.R.A’s assumed involvement. However, given the organization’s stranglehold on the community, no one would talk.
To help the reader understand McConville’s case, it is necessary to describe in detail, the political climate in Northern Ireland at the time dominated by violent conflict. Referred to as “The Troubles,” the decades long struggle is narrated through the personal stories of major players both in the Irish Republican Army and the top echelons of British government. Keefe, the author, does this in a comprehensive yet still compelling fashion.
I will admit that when I started this book, I only had a vague knowledge of The Troubles probably influenced more by how the I.R.A was portrayed by Hollywood than real life. I knew, generally, there had been a minority faction in Ireland who were very unhappy and frequently resorted to violence (bombings, shootings, etc.) to get attention for their cause. Given the amount of innocent people caught in the crossfire, I did not have much sympathy for them.
Enter this book and my eyes have largely been opened to how complicated this conflict was, with plenty of blame for horrific deeds and violence to go around on both sides.
History of The Troubles
Trying to succinctly summarize a conflict as complicated as The Troubles is quite a challenge, but here is what I learned (very basically). In the 12th Century, the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland shifted the island’s demographics creating a majority of British loyalists. In the 1920s, Ireland waged a war for independence from Great Britain. In the aftermath, two Irelands remained: an independant republic to the South, and a British colony to the North.
Within Northern Ireland, Protestants held the majority and were largely loyal to Great Britain while Catholics, lesser in numbers, mostly sought a unified Irish State. Being in the minority, Catholics faced broad discrimination. Segregated by their religion, they were prevented from obtaining the best jobs or public housing. They were arguably also more likely to be harassed by police and local government. These injustices sparked protests and lead to violence in the 1960s as British troops were sent in to quell the unrest. To defend themselves, Irish nationalists resurrected the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a relic of Ireland’s earlier revolution. From this group a splinter group formed, focused solely on unification of the Irish state (and devoted to using violence to achieve this goal). They would come to be known as the Provisional IRA or the “Provos.”
While public bombings and mass shootings became the hallmark of the IRS’s international fame, locally there was a more feared and less discussed fate for those who crossed the IRA: being “disappeared.” Largely assumed to have been the work of the Provos, these disappearances (there were 17 cases designated as such) have recently been given more public attention. Investigations have been reopened and attempts made to recover remains so victims may be laid to rest and families might have closure.
The case of Jean McConnville, the focus of this book, is one of the most high profile cases of the “disappeared.”
My Takeaways from the Book
It does take awhile to get into the story and understand the many players and background of the conflict, especially if you are like me and started out with limited knowledge on the subject. This is why audio can be key with a book such as this. It means I don’t have to turn pages…they are “turned” for me and I just have to keep my ears open.
The story evolves into a really well-thought out and compelling narrative about a single disappearance within the larger setting of the conflict and how it adversely affected this community. The author begins by outlining the McConville case and periodically returns to this narrative as the book progresses, dropping a few new developments until finally revealing the answers at the end. This provides a serious thriller-type suspense which helps you navigate forward through a pretty dense conglomeration of facts, political motivations and events that make up The Troubles.
Add to that an Irish-accented narrator in the audiobook version, and it creates an incredibly dramatic reader experience.
The issue that stood out most for me was the strategy of using violence as a means to gain attention for the IRA’s cause. I kept going back to the statements from the leadership of the Provos claiming they were not trying to hurt innocent people. “Then, why are you detonating bombs in public areas,” I thought. In most cases, they announced the bombs ahead of time so that police could evacuate the areas, but obviously that is not a perfect scenario and people will still get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. After learning so much more about their plight, I did gain a sympathy for the issues the Provos were attempting to bring forth. But this decision to use violence to get attention is what I still have a hard time understanding.
Something else that stood out for me was how much involvement and knowledge there was, even at very high levels in the British government, of incredibly despicable and violent tactics. Assassination attempts, bombings, shootings, violent interrogations – they were all condoned as a means to an end. This is an obvious symptom of many conflicts, but it really is eye-opening to learn how much discretion people in power have, even in modern developed countries like Great Britain (here in the U.S. too!).
Final Thoughts and Recommendations
All in all I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a compelling piece of history with a bit of a murder mystery thriller feel for good measure. Of late, nonfiction books like this one, that read very much like fiction, have been plentiful. I am so thankful for their ability to speak to my thirst for knowledge while also keeping me interested and entertained.
Book-Inspired Recipe for Irish Beef Stew
Listening to this book with an Irish-accented narrator and the cold chill both of the political climate of late 20th century Northern Ireland and the actual climate outside (I read it in the waning days of December 2019), I immediately thought of a warm dish to comfort me. This Irish Beef Stew is a dish families can come in out of the cold and enjoy together.