Fiction, Travel

The Troubles in Ten Novels

Conflict is a sine non qua of fiction and war has been a central concern of story tellers for millennia. From Gilgamesh to “Nefarious War” by Li Po to Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, we humans are fascinated by tales of struggle, trauma, death and survival. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Northern Irish conflict known as The Troubles should yield its share of stories.

  1. Milkman (2018) by Anna Burns 

This is experimental novel set in Belfast in the 1970s won the Man-Booker Prize in 2018. The narrator is an unnamed 18-year-old girl who is stalked by an older paramilitary figure, ‘Milkman’. Anna Burns was born in Belfast. Her first novel No Bones (2001) is an account of a girl’s life growing up in a dysfunctional family during The Troubles in the 1980s.   

2. One by One in the Darkness (1997) by Deirdre Madden  

This novel tells the story of a reunion of three Northern Irish sisters shortly before the ceasefire of 1994. It explores their shared memories of childhood and growing up during the Troubles, providing a compelling picture of Northern Irish history in the latter part of the twentieth century.  

Deirdre Madden was born in County Antrim and many of her novels focus on the turmoil of the north. Her 1996 novel One by One in the Darkness (1996).

3. The Twelve (UK) or The Ghosts of Belfast (USA) (2009) by Stuart Neville

Former paramilitary killer Gerry Fegan is haunted by his victims and vows to assuage his guilt by targeting those he ultimately blames for their deaths: politicians, security forces, street thugs and bystanders. His vendetta threatens to derail the peace process and everyone wants him gone. David Campbell, a double agent, accepts the hitman job, for his own reasons. The Twelve (published in the USA as The Ghosts of Belfast) was Neville’s debut novel. He has since published six more critically acclaimed books, mostly set in Belfast.

4. The Cold, Cold Ground  (2011) by Adrian McKinty

Adrian McKinty is probably best known for The Chain, a kidnapping thriller set in Masachusetts. But  he also has a famous series of crime novels set in Belfast during the Troubles, starring Royal Ulster Constabulary Sergeant Sean Duffy. The first of these books was The Cold, Cold Ground (2012). He said of the novel, “It didn’t sell very well, but it ended up getting the best reviews of my career. I got shortlisted for an Edgar, won a couple of awards, and so then that set me on that path for the next six years of reluctantly, kind of being dragged into writing about Northern Ireland in the 1980s.”

5. Watchman (1988) by Ian Rankin  

Miles Flint is a surveillance officer for MI5. He is sent to Belfast to witness what he believes is going to be the arrest of some PIRA members. However, he discovers that he is really going to participate in the assassination of the Irishmen and that his own life is at risk.

Scotsman Ian Rankin is one of the big names of crime fiction, of course, but he is better known for his Detective Inspector Rebus novels, which are set in and around Edinburgh.

6. The Boy Who Could See Demons (2012) by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Alex Connolly is either schizophrenic or really does have a 9,000-year-old demon for a best friend. It’s up to child psychiatrist Anya to find out. The novel touches on the legacy of trauma in terms of mental health. Author CJ Cooke grew up on a council estate in Belfast and published her first novel, the best-selling The Guardian Angel’s Journey in 2009.

7. Ghost Moth (2013) by Michèle Forbes  

In 1969, as Northern Ireland moves to the brink of civil war, a man and his wife struggle to keep their romantic secrets buried in the past. Michèle Forbes was born in Belfast but has been based in Dublin since her university days. Apart from being a writer, she has a distinguished acting career. Ghost Moth was her debut novel and she has also published some award-winning short stories and another novel, Edith & Oliver (2017).

8. Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty 

A retired couple originally from Northern Ireland but now living in Scotland decide to go for a little holiday. In Amsterdam, between sight-seeing, they take stock of their lives, with the result that fissures form, frustrations bubble up and memories and scars from the Troubles start to ache again.  Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast but has lived in Scotland since the seventies. He has published five novels and five collections of short stories.

9. Where They Were Missed (2006) by Lucy Caldwell 

Saoirse is the daughter of a member of the RUC and her mother is a Catholic from Donegal who struggles to cope with the sectarian pressures of life in Belfast in the 1980s and turns to drink. It is only when she is a teenager that she discovers what tore her family apart. Lucy Caldwell grew up in Belfast and has written three novels and several plays.

10. A Breed of Heroes (1981) by Alan Judd 

Young British Army Officer Charles Thoroughgood is deployed on his first tour of duty in Armagh and Belfast at the height of The Troubles. The experience leaves him disenchanted with army life, to say the least.

Alan Judd is the pseudonym of Alan Edwin Petty, a former diplomat and soldier who now works as a security analyst and writer. A Breed of Heroes was made into a BBC television film in 1996 and a sequel, Legacy, was published in 2001.

2 thoughts on “The Troubles in Ten Novels”

    1. I’ve read the first chapter, which is very enjoyable. It’s a bit Joycean –a rambling monologue that carries you away with it. But much clearer and less pretentious than Joyce.

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