Monday, June 12, 2017

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The Grey Knight

Anthony McIntyre reviews a novel set in the era of the H Block hunger strike.

A wrenboy dances with Hazel while her mum is treated to a two-step by one of his companions. It is not what could be described as a dance with the devil but to the boys the dance floor was in the devil’s kitchen, although not the scenic small cave on the southwestern shore of Mackinac Island.

This was Larchfield House, situated just across the border from the politically violent North of Ireland. The master over “big house survivors” and family alike, not abiding by the standards of graphic correctness, came sans horns, tail and club foot but still ruled the roost. He was not averse to physically striking his wife just to reinforce the point.

The performance of the dance, because it was part of a social ritual in which wrenboys were not made to feel unwelcome even by those who did not exactly embrace them with open arms, was a cause of resentment to Edward Coote. He was a nose in the air chauvinist with a clear disdain for those he considered children of a lesser god. On occasion, he had taken to shooting at them, but not being short of the finances to reach an out of court settlement availed of justice for the wealthy.

The dance was never likely to balm the running sore that sat like a raised red weal on the map of relationships between Hugh’s family, the O’Connors, and the Cootes whose home Hugh O’Connor and his fellow wrenboys were now frolicking in. Contested rightful ownership of the painting, The Grey Knight, while at the heart of the dispute leaves little room for grey areas. The divide is black and white. That is until the budding romance complicates things with an infusion of colour.

The story is sculpted out of the tumultuous events of 1981 when a republican hunger strike in the H Blocks was a presence in almost every Irish home, sympathetic to the cause of the protesting prisoner or not. The setting is a rural society in Southern Ireland where the most pressing social concern is the problem of a shrinking religious congregation. Then the hunger strike intervenes, its effect made sharper due to local man Gerry Dowd being one of the prisoners refusing food.

The penumbra of the Provisional IRA always hovered but was deprived of salience. This novel included the Provos without allowing them poll position. Hawkishness had as much presence here as mawkishness. The shout of “Up The Provos” was emitted for the purpose of impressing the girls, not out of deep ideological commitment.

Although it is plugged as a story of love in troubled times, if Mills & Boon is what stimulates your bookish juices into full flow this novel is perhaps not for you. Neither schmaltzy nor contrived, it portentously suggests something other than a happy ending and holds the anticipation right to the end.

Nor is it written to conform to a peace process perspective whereby the supposed mutual hatred of each community for the other can by overcome if only everybody could follow the example of Hugh and Hazel by reaching out and indulging in a cross-community affaire de coeur. Like the Beatles song that the young lovebirds had a shared passion for, the author decided in respect of maudlin sentimentality and plastic narratives, to Let it be.

The atmospherics at work in this book took me back to the pages of Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn, first published in 1867, and recommended to me by a lawyer. I came away from that experience realising that lawyer’s advice is not always right. I would have read Phinneas Finn during the blanket protest on the grounds of “needs must” but these days being spoiled for choice, I choose my literature. The atmospherics of the Trollope work were the most endearing feature of Phineas Finn, which Patrick Devaney, most likely unknowingly, replicated in Grey Knight, seamlessly combining them with a good narrative rooted in the political tensions of 1981. Yet, notwithstanding Nigel’s use of Marijuana coupled with the image of modern motor vehicles the writing always conveyed the feel of life in the 19th Century. Having read World From Rough Stones during the hunger strikes while still wearing a rough blanket, The Grey Knight resonated in more ways than one. 

In contrast to the roughness of stones and blankets The Grey Knight is a gentle read in what some might consider an old-fashioned sense. It relies on the imagination and word craft of the author rather than being interspersed with expletives and titillating sex scenes. Hugh’s “sore arse” experience was as “smutty” as it got. 

Grey Knight is enthralling without being exciting. It soothes. Its page turning allure lies not in its gripping suspense but comes courtesy of its power to act as a calming salve for a mind in a state of restlessness. When I would put it down due to the intrusion of something or other not yearned for, I was pleased by the thought that I would pick it up again in an hour or two once time permitted. 

Now it being time to return my copy to its rightful owner, my friend Dee, the lyrics of a Devil Makes Three song appropriately flit around my mind: 

Goodbye old friend,

farewell it seems
We'll dance again

in my dreams

Patrick Devaney, 2017. The Grey Knight. Publisher AuthorHOUSE: ISBN: 978-1524676438


Niall said...

I usually give books that are written with the ‘Troubles’ as a theme the elbow due to the fact that most tend to be so God damn patronising. Love stories, especially those based on hands across the divide are not my genre either but you imply a difference here with this one........might just convince me to pick it up but only much later in a second hand book store for if I’m disappointed I wouldn’t be too much out of pocket!

AM said...


I do the same. But this one is different because it avoids all that mush and does not rely on "love across the divide" to give the story lift.

Niall said...

OK, will look out for it.

AM said...


it depends on what you are into.

If you want a thriller, this is not that type of book. It is a well written story that conveys atmosphere and human emotion. I enjoyed it because it has a soothing effect on the reader. It is not what we would expect to find in say Stieg Larsson: it slows the pace down and goes for the descriptive rather than the destructive (in terms of the latter being explosive).

Niall said...

Reading a book at the moment that sounds very similar to it - To the Bright Edge of the World by Eoywn Ivey. Another book bought for me and certainly not one I would ever have bought myself or even picked up to give it consideration. It has gripped me though and a love story too! Sometimes people see you differently and the presenting of this book as a gift proves it!