Updated: Apr 2, 2019
Say Nothing - while bone-chilling - is a truly excellent work of narrative non-fiction. To call it true crime feels like a bit of stretch, since, while there is crime involved, author Patrick Radden Keefe is really writing about the nature of insurgency and counterinsurgency. He investigates the disappearance of Belfast mother of ten, Jean McConville, using her story as the focal point around which the key players of the Provisional IRA (Gerry Adams, Brendan Hughes, the Price sisters, and others) revolve. To help him tell the story, he also focuses in on a controversial oral history project underwritten (although with some questionable oversight) by Boston College many years after McConville's disappearance, as the potential source of a breakthrough in the case.
The book kicks off with the lead-up to McConville's disappearance and her disappearance itself. McConville, a Protestant who had married a Catholic, the widowed mother of ten, is taken away one winter evening in 1972, and never seen again. The children, after trying to fend for themselves, are split apart, the younger ones sent off to orphanages, the older ones to fend for themselves. For decades, while the Troubles swirls around them, the children know nothing more about what happened to their mother.
Keefe then shifts the focus of the book, moving to a broader sweep through some of the leading players of the IRA and the British Army stationed in Ireland. He explains how supposed traitors (Freds) were dealt with, giving us a hint of what may have happened to McConville. He gives an overview of IRA activities, including bombings and attempted bombings, giving a view into the capture and trial of the Price sisters, who were major players in the IRA. He then provides more insight into the hunger strikes undertaken by IRA members while in prison, including the activities of Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes while in prison at Long Kesh, raising questions around how ruthless Gerry Adams really was/is (his answer: incredibly).
It was in this second section of the book that I feared that Keefe was veering too far off course, that he might be padding out his book by delving into the stories of various Provisional IRA leaders, like Adams, Hughes, and the Price sisters, and moving us away from the story of Jean. Let me just say, without any spoilers, that I should have trusted Keefe's deft planning and narrative structure. There's a reason behind every piece of information he's included.
The third section of the book deals with the Good Friday agreement and its aftermath. While the violence in Northern Irelandhas almost completely died down over the past twenty years, Keefe makes it clear that there is still a culture of saying nothing, as there was never a formal reconciliation process or legal process set forth for dealing with the crimes of the Troubles. The investigation into McConville's death, along with several others who were "disappeared" during the Troubles, turns on information included in oral histories that were supposed to remain confidential until the person giving the interview had died. Even with the evidence of these tapes, though, some elements of the story of what really happened to McConville remain elusive.
I thought this book was excellent. Keefe grapples with a difficult subject and shows a deep understanding of the nature of insurgency and counterinsurgency, and the long-lingering scars that these kinds of conflicts leave on a people and a culture.
Overall: 4 1/2 Sherlocks, and one of the best books I've read so far this year, certainly the best piece of non-fiction so far.
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