Evil genius Adrian McKinty (right) sends us yet another literary missive from his mountain lair, this one on the ‘fearless, gifted Irishman from Newtownabbey’, aka Ronan Bennett. Take it away, O Dark Lord, sir …
Ronan Bennett’s HAVOC, IN ITS THIRD YEAR is set in the north of England in the 1630s. It is the story of John Brigge, a respectable county civil servant who is also a covert follower of the “old religion”. Brigge is the parish coroner, and the book begins with his investigation into a local woman who appears to have murdered her baby. There may be more to the story than meets the eye or it could be that Brigge’s compassion towards the desperate wretches that appear before him day-in and day-out has clouded his judgement. In either case, Brigge raises suspicions among some of the local townsfolk and his life, complicated already by his own wife’s pregnancy, takes a dramatic turn for the worse.
Bennett skilfully portrays a man on the edge and a country at the cusp of a disastrous civil war; among many remarkable passages he gives us Brigge’s dreams that mix murderers, wives, victims, secret priests and unborn children in a swirling whirlpool of guilt and fear.
Brigge is ultimately betrayed as a Catholic by a jealous clerk and he and his family go on the run through a nightmare landscape no less vivid than the dreamscape.
Ronan Bennett and all right-thinking people will hate this analogy, but sometimes you read a novel that impresses you, but whose power, like the festering bite of the komodo dragon, only increases with time. HAVOC, IN ITS THIRD YEAR is such a book for me. When I read it several months ago, I liked it, I thought it was a good read, I recommended it to friends, but I didn’t think it was transcendent. Since then, however, it has resonated in my consciousness at odd times of the day and night; whole scenes played out like a film, entire passages recalled like poetry.
Last week I bought Bennett’s THE CATASTROPHIST and that too is an extraordinary read. Set in the Belgian Congo in 1959 and 1960, it is a love story and political thriller that takes place in the wake of Belgium’s hasty attempt to divest itself of its African empire. It too is a great book, both moving and gripping and a powerful allegory for imperialism closer to home.
Ronan Bennett and I were born only a few miles and a few years apart but we’re from different cultural and political universes. Bennett was radicalised in the early seventies and apparently he has lost none of his righteous indignation. He has got himself into passionate debates with Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens and he has said unfortunate things about the Omagh bombing - things which he has since recanted.
But surely no one can fault Bennett’s fury at our contemporary scene, and his prose tells us something about the writer behind the disputes: clinical, dispassionate, ironic, intelligent, careful and ultimately incendiary.
His plots move, his writing pulses, and his characters live and breathe and disagree with each other and often him. He takes his time with his protagonists, allowing them psychological and spiritual depth and yet he understands that characters alone aren’t enough; for a book to succeed it must have a strong, well planned narrative. Bennett’s novels are structurally sound and that hardest of combinations: unpredictable, yet completely convincing.
Bennett is a profound writer in the tradition of early Le Carré or middle period Greene. He takes his job seriously and never underestimates the intelligence of his readers. And, speaking of Greene (this is where Bennett fans begin to groan), occasionally the British press will play the perennially popular game of wondering who “the new Graham Greene” could possibly be. A few – almost always English – authors are often tossed out and then summarily critiqued and dismissed as mere pretenders. No dauphin has yet been found, but if Ronan Bennett keeps on going the way he’s been going, I’d say the contest is over. Although Bennett would no doubt reject the dubious honour, the new Graham Greene isn’t an Englishman at all – he’s a fearless, gifted, Irishman from Newtownabbey. – Adrian McKinty
Adrian McKinty blogs at The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. His latest novel, FIFTY GRAND, is due in 2009 from Holt
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.