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‘Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland’ by Patrick Radden Keefe ****

Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, which blends together history and a particular true crime case, was the winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Writing.  I have travelled to Northern Ireland many times before, and am fascinated by the history of the country.  I had been drawn to the book for some time before I found a copy to borrow on my library’s app.

43363624._sy475_The prologue of Say Nothing begins in July 2013, in the library of Boston College, which ‘holds the most comprehensive collection of Irish political and cultural artefacts in the United States’.  Here in 2013, writes Radden Keefe, ‘two Belfast detectives arrive, and take back with them a series of secret files… [which] contained sensitive and dangerous secrets.’

Part of the focus of Say Nothing is the disappearance of thirty eight-year-old widow Jean McConville, from a small home in the notorious Divis Flats in Belfast.  She was the mother of ten children, and four more who died in infancy.  Throughout, Radden Keefe relates details of her home life, and later her case, to the societal conditions in Belfast at the time, showing that Jean’s circumstances were far from unusual: ‘But this was Belfast in 1972, where immense, unruly families were the norm, so Jean McConville wasn’t looking for any prizes, and she didn’t get any.’

Radden Keefe makes Jean’s case feel so immediate; he writes, for instance, the following about the circumstances of her disappearance: ‘But when they opened the door, a gang of people burst inside.  It happened so abruptly that none of the McConville children could say precisely how many there were – it was roughly eight people, but it could have been ten or twelve.  There were men and women.  Some had balaclavas pulled across their faces; others wore nylon stockings over their heads, which twisted their features into ghoulish masks.  At least one of them was carrying a gun.’  These people were the McConvilles’ neighbours.  They dragged Jean away, using her son Michael as a decoy, and left little trace behind them.

Michael McConville becomes the focus of one of the earlier chapters, in which Radden Keefe examines how he spent his time during the Troubles.  Michael ‘spent most of his time thinking about pigeons’, as opposed to the other children, who made danger their playground.  These children would ‘scuttle outside and crawl through the skeletons of burned-out lorries, trampoline on rusted box-spring mattresses, or hide in a stray bathtub that lay abandoned amid the rubble.’

We learn much more about Jean as the book goes on.  After her husband’s death to cancer, she, who ‘had been delicate by temperament to begin with, fell into a heavy depression’, and became a recluse.  She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and had little support from those outside of her home.  According to Michael, his mother was ‘an overworked, depressed, psychologically fragile’ woman, who ‘spent her days cocooned in her flat, smoking cigarettes and juggling children and doing laundry by hand.’  A day before she was dragged from their flat, attest her children, she did not come home from bingo.  She had been forcibly taken to an army barracks after being ‘tied to a chair, beaten and interrogated’.

Jean’s story is, of course, heartbreaking, as is the majority of the historical and political context against which her disappearance occurred.  After she is taken, her children are left alone in the flat, having to fend for themselves: ‘They held onto one another, marooned inside the flat.  Bedtime was suspended and dishes piled up in the sink.’  Helen, the eldest McConville daughter, takes charge of her younger siblings, and receives no help whatsoever from their cruel neighbours, or the Catholic church, who were ‘unsympathetic’ to the McConvilles’ plight.  Soon, rumours began to spread about Jean’s disappearance, with some believing that she ‘had absconded of her own free will, abandoning her children to shack up with a British soldier.’  The children are eventually taken into care, where many of them are treated in appalling ways, the traumas of which profoundly affect their adult lives.

Radden Keefe’s writing pulled me in immediately.  He covers the historical and political background with impeccable control, and although the information within the book could quite easily have become dense, he makes it accessible.  The author has such a handle on complex and tumultuous periods of Northern Irish history.  Radden Keefe’s prose is informative, intelligent, and intoxicating.  He focuses on many different individuals throughout, who all have a part to play in the wider story.

Say Nothing is so much more than a true crime book; it is a social, political, classist, and geographical history.   Radden Keefe writes at length about the IRA, Sinn Fein, and tensions between Northern Ireland and the British government, and focuses on individuals who had quite a part to play during this period, such as Gerry Adams.  Of course, there is a great deal of shocking content here, some of which I found quite difficult to read.  Radden Keefe examines the myriad concerns which the wider political context fostered, all of which are intertwined with the story of Jean and her children.  Say Nothing is fascinating and incredibly thorough, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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The Book Trail: The Non-Fiction Edition

As the starting point for this edition of The Book Trail, I have chosen a searing memoir which I read earlier this year, and which I have seen nobody else pick up – Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness by Catherine Cho.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness by Catherine Cho 48077651
‘The riveting story of a young mother who is separated from her newborn son and husband when she’s involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward in New Jersey after a harrowing bout of postpartum psychosis.  When Catherine and her husband set off from London to introduce their newborn son to family scattered across the United States, she could not have imagined what lay in store. Before the trip’s end, she develops psychosis, a complete break from reality, which causes her to lose all sense of time and place, including what is real and not real. In desperation, her husband admits her to a nearby psychiatric hospital, where she begins the hard work of rebuilding her identity. In this unwaveringly honest, insightful, and often shocking memoir Catherine reconstructs her sense of self, starting with her childhood as the daughter of Korean immigrants, moving through a traumatic past relationship, and on to the early years of her courtship with and marriage to her husband, James. She masterfully interweaves these parts of her past with a vivid, immediate recounting of the days she spent in the ward.  The result is a powerful exploration of psychosis and motherhood, at once intensely personal, yet holding within it a universal experience – of how we love, live and understand ourselves in relation to each other.’

 

33516728._sy475_2. The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness: A Memoir by Sarah Ramey
‘The darkly funny memoir of Sarah Ramey’s years-long battle with a mysterious illness that doctors thought was all in her head–but wasn’t. A revelation and an inspiration for millions of women whose legitimate health complaints are ignored.  In her harrowing, defiant, and unforgettable memoir, Sarah Ramey recounts the decade-long saga of how a seemingly minor illness in her senior year of college turned into a prolonged and elusive condition that destroyed her health but that doctors couldn’t diagnose or treat. Worse, as they failed to cure her, they hinted that her devastating symptoms were psychological.  The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness is a memoir with a mission, to help the millions of (mostly) women who suffer from unnamed or misunderstood conditions: autoimmune illnesses like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic Lyme disease, chronic pain, and many more. Ramey’s pursuit of a diagnosis and cure for her own mysterious illness becomes a page-turning medical mystery that reveals a new understanding of today’s chronic illnesses as ecological in nature, driven by modern changes to the basic foundations of health, from the quality of our sleep, diet, and social connection to the state of our microbiomes. Her book will open eyes, change lives, and ultimately change medicine.’

 

3. Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller 50196744._sx318_sy475_
She was known to the world as Emily Doe when she stunned millions with a letter. Brock Turner had been sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting her on Stanford’s campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral–viewed by eleven million people within four days, it was translated globally and read on the floor of Congress; it inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case. Thousands wrote to say that she had given them the courage to share their own experiences of assault for the first time.  Now she reclaims her identity to tell her story of trauma, transcendence, and the power of words. It was the perfect case, in many ways–there were eyewitnesses, Turner ran away, physical evidence was immediately secured. But her struggles with isolation and shame during the aftermath and the trial reveal the oppression victims face in even the best-case scenarios. Her story illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators, indicts a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, and, ultimately, shines with the courage required to move through suffering and live a full and beautiful life.  Know My Name will forever transform the way we think about sexual assault, challenging our beliefs about what is acceptable and speaking truth to the tumultuous reality of healing. It also introduces readers to an extraordinary writer, one whose words have already changed our world. Entwining pain, resilience, and humor, this memoir will stand as a modern classic.

 

436825524. How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones
Haunted and haunting, Jones’s memoir tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his mother and grandmother, into passing flings with lovers, friends and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.  Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze. How We Fight for Our Lives is a one of a kind memoir and a book that cements Saeed Jones as an essential writer for our time.

 

5. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom 43347603
In 1961, Sarah M. Broom’s mother Ivory Mae bought a shotgun house in the then-promising neighborhood of New Orleans East and built her world inside of it. It was the height of the Space Race and the neighborhood was home to a major NASA plant–the postwar optimism seemed assured. Widowed, Ivory Mae remarried Sarah’s father Simon Broom; their combined family would eventually number twelve children. But after Simon died, six months after Sarah’s birth, the Yellow House would become Ivory Mae’s thirteenth and most unruly child.  A book of great ambition, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House tells a hundred years of her family and their relationship to home in a neglected area of one of America’s most mythologized cities. This is the story of a mother’s struggle against a house’s entropy, and that of a prodigal daughter who left home only to reckon with the pull that home exerts, even after the Yellow House was wiped off the map after Hurricane Katrina. The Yellow House expands the map of New Orleans to include the stories of its lesser known natives, guided deftly by one of its native daughters, to demonstrate how enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure. Located in the gap between the “Big Easy” of tourist guides and the New Orleans in which Broom was raised, The Yellow House is a brilliant memoir of place, class, race, the seeping rot of inequality, and the internalized shame that often follows. It is a transformative, deeply moving story from an unparalleled new voice of startling clarity, authority, and power.

 

40163119._sy475_6. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
From award-winning New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, a stunning, intricate narrative about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland and its devastating repercussions.  In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.  Patrick Radden Keefe’s mesmerizing book on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath uses the McConville case as a starting point for the tale of a society wracked by a violent guerrilla war, a war whose consequences have never been reckoned with. The brutal violence seared not only people like the McConville children, but also I.R.A. members embittered by a peace that fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland, and left them wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders. From radical and impetuous I.R.A. terrorists such as Dolours Price, who, when she was barely out of her teens, was already planting bombs in London and targeting informers for execution, to the ferocious I.R.A. mastermind known as The Dark, to the spy games and dirty schemes of the British Army, to Gerry Adams, who negotiated the peace but betrayed his hardcore comrades by denying his I.R.A. past–Say Nothing conjures a world of passion, betrayal, vengeance, and anguish.

 

7. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear 40538681Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
‘The definitive, dramatic untold story of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, based on original reporting and new archival research.  April 25, 1986, in Chernobyl, was a turning point in world history. The disaster not only changed the world’s perception of nuclear power and the science that spawned it, but also our understanding of the planet’s delicate ecology. With the images of the abandoned homes and playgrounds beyond the barbed wire of the 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone, the rusting graveyards of contaminated trucks and helicopters, the farmland lashed with black rain, the event fixed for all time the notion of radiation as an invisible killer.  Chernobyl was also a key event in the destruction of the Soviet Union, and, with it, the United States’ victory in the Cold War. For Moscow, it was a political and financial catastrophe as much as an environmental and scientific one. With a total cost of 18 billion rubles—at the time equivalent to $18 billion—Chernobyl bankrupted an already teetering economy and revealed to its population a state built upon a pillar of lies.  The full story of the events that started that night in the control room of Reactor No.4 of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant has never been told—until now. Through two decades of reporting, new archival information, and firsthand interviews with witnesses, journalist Adam Higginbotham tells the full dramatic story, including Alexander Akimov and Anatoli Dyatlov, who represented the best and worst of Soviet life; denizens of a vanished world of secret policemen, internal passports, food lines, and heroic self-sacrifice for the Motherland. Midnight in Chernobyl, award-worthy nonfiction that reads like sci-fi, shows not only the final epic struggle of a dying empire but also the story of individual heroism and desperate, ingenious technical improvisation joining forces against a new kind of enemy.

 

44526650._sy475_8. Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come by Richard Preston
The 2013-2014 Ebola epidemic was the deadliest ever–but the outbreaks continue. Now comes a gripping account of the doctors and scientists fighting to protect us, an urgent wake-up call about the future of emerging viruses–from the #1 bestselling author of The Hot Zone, soon to be a National Geographic original miniseries.  This time, Ebola started with a two-year-old child who likely had contact with a wild creature and whose entire family quickly fell ill and died. The ensuing global drama activated health professionals in North America, Europe, and Africa in a desperate race against time to contain the viral wildfire. By the end–as the virus mutated into its deadliest form, and spread farther and faster than ever before–30,000 people would be infected, and the dead would be spread across eight countries on three continents.  In this taut and suspenseful medical drama, Richard Preston deeply chronicles the outbreak, in which we saw for the first time the specter of Ebola jumping continents, crossing the Atlantic, and infecting people in America. Rich in characters and conflict–physical, emotional, and ethical–Crisis in the Red Zone is an immersion in one of the great public health calamities of our time.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which titles pique your interest?