cover image The Abstainer

The Abstainer

Ian McGuire. Random House, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-593-13387-3

McGuire (The North Water) imagines the early years of the Fenian Brotherhood in this taut, atmospheric tale of an Irish American freedom fighter and an Irish detective squaring off on the rainy streets of Manchester, England, in 1867. James O’Connell accepted a transfer from the Dublin police department to Manchester after exhausting the goodwill of his superiors, who initially tolerated his drunkenness out of sympathy for O’Connell being a widower. In Manchester, he’s tasked with gathering intelligence from the local Fenians, who are in a rabble over the hanging of three men. After O’Connell’s main source, Thomas Flanagan, gets a message to O’Connell that the Fenians have sent American Civil War veteran Stephen Doyle to Manchester to orchestrate a retaliation for the hangings, Flanagan is found out and murdered. The episode tugs on O’Connell’s conscience, especially after he meets Flanagan’s grieving sister, Rose. The arrival of another American, O’Connell’s nephew Michael Sullivan, complicates things further, as Michael is determined to infiltrate the Fenians to catch Doyle in exchange for a reward. McGuire demonstrates a mastery of classic realism, building the characters through their reactions to unflinching scenes of brutality, from a Manchester rat-baiting pit to memories of Civil War combat and a botched public hanging. Manchester in particular is evoked with keen impressionistic detail (“Outside, the rain repeats itself, low and constant, like the hum of a machine or the words of a prayer”). Plot threads of romance and revenge emerge from O’Connell’s dogged impulsiveness, as he pursues Rose and then Doyle through Manchester and beyond. McGuire’s crackling work is one to savor. (Sept.)