Blights

Patricia Craig

  • A Darkness in the Eye by M.S. Power
    Heinemann, 212 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 434 59961 1
  • The Stars at Noon by Denis Johnson
    Faber, 181 pp, £9.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 571 14607 4
  • Like Birds in the Wilderness by Agnes Owens
    Fourth Estate, 138 pp, £9.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 947795 51 0
  • Fool’s Sanctuary by Jennifer Johnston
    Hamish Hamilton, 132 pp, £8.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 241 12035 7
  • A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)
    Viking, 317 pp, £10.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 670 80977 2
  • Sisters of the Road by Barbara Wilson
    Women’s Press, 202 pp, £3.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 7043 4073 9
  • The price you pay by Hannah Wakefield
    Women’s Press, 245 pp, £4.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 7043 4072 0

With A Darkness in the Eye M.S. Power completes his terrorist trilogy. It is set, as are parts one and two, in a characterless city called Belfast, and opens as they do with news of a killing, before back-tracking to delineate the circumstances in which the victim met his end. The current victim is Seamus Reilly, himself previously a death-dealer on a large scale – one-time head, in fact, of the IRA’s Punishment Squad, and author of quite a few bloody dispatches. Reilly has come round, a bit late in the day, to a democratic way of thinking. He is, we are told, doing his utmost to put an end to ‘the violence that crippled the province’. This new attitude puts him at odds with those among his former associates who remain addicted to slaughter. Within the IRA, peace-lovers like Reilly are labelled ‘doves’, while the rest go under the name of ‘hawks’. At the start of the novel, three hawks detach themselves from Reilly’s unit, deciding to go it alone. They are a short fat father of many children, a nail-biter of small intelligence, and a personable blonde referred to throughout as ‘the woman’ or ‘that woman’. ‘It’s that woman I worry about,’ says Reilly’s Commander. ‘She’s the one that will most resent the power being taken from her. They always do. Women.’ No voice demurs at this judgment.

The breakaway hawks take under their wing an Army officer, a Major Fisher, who is passing himself off as a deserter. It’s a sorry assignment he is landed with, Fisher finds. To ingratiate himself with his new allies he has to shoot a corporal in his own regiment. Meanwhile the woman behind this atrocity is making a series of visits to Glasgow, in the course of which an ambitious enterprise is arranged: the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton. At the same time, Seamus Reilly of the IRA, who knows all about the Army ploy involving the bogus deserter, as well as suspecting that some mainland drama is about to be enacted, is engaged in dealings with his old ally from part two of the trilogy, Mr Asher of the RUC. These traditional antagonists, both very short men, are acting in cahoots to keep things from getting worse. To complete the cast of characters, and to promote continuity, we have Colonel Matthew Maddox, an honourable Englishman and the subject of an assassination attempt in book one, The Killing of Yesterday’ s Children, winkled out of Berkshire by a brigadier who tells him that his country needs him – needs him, in fact, to liaise with the foolhardy Fisher. The dutiful colonel is not greatly taken with the role.

The Army, the IRA and the RUC: these are the players in the insoluble board game, involving complicated reshuffles and adjustments in allegiance, which Power has invented to demonstrate the pass Northern Ireland has come to. There isn’t a whiff of naturalism about the presentation of sectarian or political conflict in the Power trilogy: such conflict is simply the occasion for a diagram of darkness and deviousness. Being ‘forced to form links with strange allies’: this is one of the many things deplored by the decent colonel, Maddox, whose preferred allies are as aboveboard as himself; and it gains, indeed, an unlikely apologist for the IRA, the RUC inspector, Asher, who has established a firm understanding with his counterpart, Reilly. (Asher’s character, incidentally, undergoes a change after book one: from being an object of disapproval, small, bumptious and undignified to boot, he is suddenly endowed with authority and flexibility, to meet the requirements of the second plot. We hear no more about his entanglements with loose women.) ‘The IRA were just ordinary men doing what they saw as fit and proper for their cause, resorting to violence because otherwise nobody would pay them any heed,’ thinks this unduly unbigoted policeman. Here we have an instance of the author bending over backwards to point up the contortions in Irish affairs.

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