Like his previous work, A Vortex of Securocrats, Owens has invited us into a Belfast that feels familiar to those of us who have lived there. But we are invited to be tourists, through the lens of our narrator.
I found reading this similar to a night out; encountering some morons that wish to harm you, and, perhaps, being revisited by demons when you least expect it. The protagonist takes us across the city centre, with street names, branded shops and eateries.
The superb writing and imagery in Dethrone God makes the following reflections on a city, which is also a dominant character in this story:
Despite its many faults, and even in this weather, I worship this city. There are many cities that have more in the way of culture and subcultures. Many that offer more exuberant sights. Many with an even richer history. But none match this city for the hold it has on me. Life is an intangible puzzle of beauty, and the main one for me is just how much this city means to me.
He “worships the city” even as some of its inhabitants make his life difficult. But, perhaps more troubling than the all-too-familiar “spides” in the town is an inner-monologue hinting, and then screaming, about a dark past. Muct like Belfast, and even more like the centre of Belfast, the past makes itself known. Not for the first time reading Owen’s writing, a tangible sense of the familiar arrives with the intimidatory knowledge of what happened and to whom in the streets where people now shop and make merry.
Our narrator expands with erudite flair about the fate of many European cities and about the anxiety he has about it happening closer to home. Brilliantly observational, he wonders:
… if the 'monoculture' that's infecting cities around the world will take the character out of my beloved Belfast, reducing it to nothing more than an extension of the many shopping centres that pollute the sky.
An example of this that hit home to me was the fate of St Comgall’s School, just off the Falls, pockmarked with bullet holes that announced the dawn of the Troubles, and soon to be nothing more than a memory. As Owens eloquently put it: “The sands of time are not kind to footprints.”
The narrator and the city share dark secrets. They are observant of modernity, and some might say progressing. But they are weighed down upon the past.
I found this an exhilarating read. The prose is beautiful, and for me it was like having a conversation at times. But the author doesn’t let you get too close to the narrator, despite all you have in common. The jarring nature of memories and confession remain in the background.
Again like Vortex of Securocrats, troublesome flashes of memory dance across the pages, like a BBC News 24 compilation with the sound off. Never explicit, just hinting. The murder of young Jamie Bulger, the fate of the Titanic, the screams of the aftermath of the Ormeau Road bookies massacre. Victims, perpetrators, the jailed and the jailers. A haunting vista that elicits a kind of nostalgic horror, the opposite of 1990s retro Channel 4 documentaries with bought memories from Stuart Maconie. It’s something altogether more alluring, and much more sinister.
This is a fine book. 70 pages, so doesn’t take long to read. But it demands re-visits. And stays in the mind. Anyone with an interest in noir writing, Belfast, the Troubles, or the nature of guilt and trauma should read this.
It left me feeling a sense of loss for what was, and nervousness about the future. This is, perhaps, at odds with logic.
I eagerly away his next work. Belfast Noir par fheabhas.
Christopher, Owens, 2024, Dethrone God. Sweat Drenched Press. ASIN: B0CT96J9JK
⏩Brandon Sullivan is a middle-aged West Belfast émigré. He juggles fatherhood & marriage with working in a policy environment and writing for TPQ about the conflict, films, books, and politics.