Silver's City

Christopher Owens reviews a book from the Northern conflict genre.

The old paperback cover says it all: a figure in his advancing years who has seen a lot and isn't someone you'd mess with staring up at a shadowy figure hovering over him. The questioning and contempt is evident in his facial expression, while the bulk of the shadow seems to imply a pseudo 'hard man.'

First published in 1981, Silver's City was widely acclaimed as a piece of Troubles related fiction that didn't fall into the typical Kevin and Sadieesque 'why can't we all get along' clap trap that often masquerades as novels set in this country. It was regarded as a tense, noir thriller which didn't moralise and arguably influenced the likes of Eoin McNamee.

Falling out of print in the mid/late 90's, it was republished last year by Turnpike Books, who dedicate themselves to republishing books from "...undeservedly, forgotten writers from the north" like Benedict Kiely, Janet McNeill and Ian Cochrane.

There's never a time period specified, but we can presume that it's set in the late 70's. We are introduced to Ned Galloway and his unit as he shoots a doctor in front of his children. They never openly state their allegiances, but it's obvious from some of their language that they are loyalists. Their leader, Billy Bonner, charges them with the task of capturing Silver Steele (clearly based on Gusty Spence) from hospital. Silver fired the first shots of the conflict, but has been recording his memories and evolution of thoughts onto tape (an eerie precedent of the Belfast Project), making Bonner and his unit realise that Silver is a liability as much as an embalm of their cause.

As you can see, there is the semblance of a plot which has the potential to go in different, interesting directions but it chooses to hold back, preferring to be more of a character study than a fast paced thriller.

Leitch has been quoted as saying that the initial loyalist reaction to the book was negative: "I knew it wasn't a flattering portrait, but the thing about Northern Ireland is that people are anxious to project a certain image and if you somehow go against that and go your own way it doesn't go down terribly well. I remember an uncle who worked in a factory in Carrickfergus telling me that 'some of the lads would like to have a wee word with me.' And I knew exactly what that meant. But a lot of people admired the book and recognised that I was trying to do something early on during the Troubles."

It's certainly easy to see why they had this reaction, as none of the characters in the book are likeable: Galloway comes across as a prototype Victor Kelly (the Lenny Murphy styled character in Eoin McNamee's Resurrection Man), with a default setting for violence and little care in the way of what he's actually fighting for. The other characters in his unit are your typical street corner hooligans who have been handed guns and a status in their community (a common failing on paramilitaries on both sides of the divide) and Bonner puts me in mind of the likes of Jim Craig in that he has a vision of what his cause is, but has become too distracted with his extra curricular activities.

Even Nan, the archetypical femme fatale, isn't particularly relatable. Part of this is down to the old cliché about male writers not being able to write female characters without sexualising them in some shape or form (I highly doubt that women spend most of their time thinking about their bodies), and part of this is the insinuation that she's only using Silver as a means of bettering herself.

Of course, it's important to remember that this is a noir novel and the whole point of noir is that there are no heroes.

Like Resurrection Man, the city of Belfast is a character in itself. It's a claustrophobic, tense city where the open battles of the early 70's have receded into folk memory (much like the young Silver Steele) and there's an uneasy peace within the housing estates, with people eyeing the street through their shades for that car with more than two people in it. Even the city centre, a place associated with escapism and discovery in other cities, is a place where this uneasy tension is even more prevalent: will a bomb go off any second from now? Will I be caught in gunfire?

Silver comes across as a man out of sync with the times, hailed as a hero by people he has little in common with. But even then, he spends about half of the novel contemplating his surroundings and barely speaking to other characters (during these times, he's referred to in the narrative as "the prisoner"). This can end up frustrating to the reader as it means a good chunk of the tale involves Silver being ferried about like an inanimate object and barely reacting to events until towards the end.

And this is the main problem I have with the book: it starts off strongly, before greatly slowing down and only picking up pace again in the third act. Although there are little shows of resistance here and there between Silver and his "guards", the second act is a slog to get through. Although good for reinforcing the isolation Silver feels towards the people who have taken up his creed, it does drag on and the little glimpses of resentment that the likes of Galloway show towards Silver because he's no longer the person that legend held him up to be just tease the reader into thinking a major confrontation is due at any moment.

Overall, it isn't a completely successful novel if taken as a thriller, but if you think of it as more of an existentialist character study with elements of noir and a time capsule, you'll be thoroughly engrossed.

Maurice Leitch, Silver's City Turnpike Books ISBN-13: 978-0993591327

Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

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