A time of violence: Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion

Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion. Baraka Books, Montréal, 2023

This edgy thriller by Irish-Canadian author Luke Francis Beirne has some similar elements to his previous novel Foxhunt, also published by Baraka Books. In my post on it just over a year ago I likened it to early le Carré (link HERE). Blacklion in some ways resembles some of Graham Greene’s fiction – in fact, Part 1 of this novel is called ‘The Quiet American’.

The setting is early seventies Ireland. The Troubles are at their height in Ultster. Ray, of South Boston American-Irish stock, has been dispatched by the CIA to infiltrate the IRA in the Republic with a view to re-establishing a lost line of gun-running. The aim is not so much as to support the Republican cause, as to prevent the Soviets from stepping in and further unbalancing the power dynamic in the Cold War.

Ray, as a conspicuous newcomer and outsider, has to win the trust of a deeply suspicious set of people (associated with the previous gun-running operation out of gangland South Boston) and IRA splinter-group volunteers. His loyalty is tested several times, each time in more dangerous and hair-raising ways. More than once his life is threatened, and he has to muffle his moral instincts when other people’s lives are on the line: to step in and prevent bloodshed he would jeopardise his cover.

There’s a sub-genre of thriller to which Blacklion makes a worthy contribution (a recent series of the hit UK tv series ‘Line of Duty’ is an example): the undercover cop/agent who has to compromise his human principles in order to fulfil his mission. This includes becoming involved in a sexual relationship with one of the female activists. The tension mounts when Ray’s initial guilt at deceiving Aoife turns into another kind of unease as he finds himself falling in love with her.

The plot is fairly standard for this kind of set-up, with increasingly nail-biting operations involving assassinations of rivals or suspected ‘rats’, and firefights with the British army that culminate in a dangerous operation in the town of Blacklion, just over the border in Ulster.

There’s less obvious political ideology in this novel than there was in 50s-set Foxhunt. There the conflicting and equally extreme positions of the Soviets and conservative Americans were foregrounded. In Blacklion, Beirne is more interested in what drives politically motivated activists to such extremes of violence, while also exploring the even more complex morality of the undercover agent. The validity of Ray’s actions and mission is never overtly judged; the narrative simply presents what happens and wisely leaves the readers to form their own views.

The fact that he is haunted by flashbacks of his previous illegal covert operation in Laos (during the Vietnam war) simply shows the price Ray pays for doing the job he does. In a way he comes to grudgingly admire the commitment to a cause demonstrated by the people he deceives, and to question his role and the murkier ‘cause’, if it could be called that, on behalf of which he is operating. As Yeats put it, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.

One minor cavil. The prose is terse, unadorned – I suppose it could be called ‘hard-boiled’ in a Hemingway/Chandler way. But I was a little put off by one aspect of this style; there are times when the ‘this happened then this’ approach becomes intrusive. Let me try and explain with a fairly random example.

‘Ray walked around the car and opened the passenger side door. He climbed inside and shut it. Aoife turned the key in the ignition and started the car. The headlights played across the grass before the sand…’

Why not the even more pared-back, ‘They climbed into the car and drove off’…? I don’t mind that minimalist prose style, but moments like this grated a bit with me. But that’s a minor point. I enjoyed this novel a lot. It’s an exciting, compelling read, but also thought-provoking. Morality and character are as much in play as politics or action.

My thanks to Baraka Books for the ARC.

Isabel Allende again

Isabel Allende, Violeta. Bloomsbury, 2023. First published in Spanish 2022. Translated by Frances Riddle.

I just looked back at the last time I posted on this Chilean-American novelist: I wrote briefly about her previous novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, back in March 2020. National lockdown in England had just started, so much of the post was about the effects of this.

My reservations about that novel were similar to those I felt with this one – although it’s a more engaging read. They both suffer from an excess of heavily imposed socio-political commentary. This would arise more naturally if the reader was able to deduce what’s going on without being lectured.

It’s another powerful family saga, once again spanning decades of the lives of a Chilean family. There’s a rather unconvincing narrative device: centenarian Violeta is supposedly telling her life story to her beloved grandson. For me, the narrative would have been less clunky if it was just a conventional account.

Some readers might find one of this novel’s central features – the misogynistic, macho culture of Chile in which domestic abuse of women was rife – hard to stomach. But it’s a brave and unflinching aspect of this woman’s story. She learns to face up to the reality of her philandering partner’s cruel treatment of her, and to find the energy and courage to face him down.

That last novel was set during and after the Spanish Civil War, and told of the flight of defeated Republicans to safe haven in Chile. Violeta tells the story of a family’s turbulent life through Chile’s financial crisis following WW1 and the flu epidemic, and that country’s fluctuating political history as it passes from democracy to military dictatorship then back to a kind of democracy again. Violeta’s family is ruined financially, goes into self-imposed exile in the far south (exile is not surprisingly a key theme for Allende), and her struggles to restore their fortunes. Along the way she learns to open her eyes to the realities of the political, social and economic systems in Chile.

The characters are more rounded and convincing this time, and I found reading their story a pleasant way to pass two long train journeys.