We are already in the period of the post-Troubles fiction of Northern Ireland. Peace in Ulster is shaky and each month brings the threat of renewed violence by the IRA or by Loyalists. Still, the ceasefire holds and the various political parties and factions of Ulster, the Irish Republic, and Britain communicate with each other, even if the communication is often little more than shouting.
After more than a quarter-century of bombings, shootings, epic atrocities like Bloody Sunday, and the prolonged, excruciating tension of the 1981 hunger strike, Northern Ireland is now awash in writers emerging to document those years and the survival of ordinary people. During most of the years of the Troubles, it was poetry that dominated the literature of Ulster. Endless tensions and appalling atrocity concentrated the minds of poets, and Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, James Simmonds, and others condensed the awfulness of Ireland's intricate, bloody convulsions into some remarkable poetry. Now it seems that novelists and short-story writers are busy with portraits of how and why the people of Ulster survived in a climate of fear and hatred. It's odd, this switch from poetry to fiction-perhaps writers need distance from the grinding horror.
Patrick Taylor's Only Wounded is a book of linked stories, set in Northern Ireland and spanning the thirty years from 1964 to 1994. Taylor is a native of Northern Ireland, a doctor who left his homeland in 1970 and has lived and worked in Canada since then. This is his first published work of fiction and his obvious purpose is to peel away the layers of political cant and document the lives and times of men and women who have lived through the years of violence. Certainly, some of the characters we meet in Only Wounded live through it all, but others die.
We meet the characters in snapshots of Ulster-some sections are true short stories, while others are vignettes of life. Each section is preceded by an account of what happened during the year the story is set and each description of the year ends with a tally of the number of dead. This lends an incremental power to Only Wounded. Apart from the fear and terror that we see intruding on ordinary life we also get an increasing sense of doom as the number of dead increases year after year. For a reader not well-versed in the history of the Troubles, much of the information Taylor provides is useful. For instance it is well worth knowing that in 1984, Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, was shot in an assassination attempt. A few months later, the IRA bombed the hotel in Brighton where most of the British cabinet was staying, and came close to assassinating Margaret Thatcher.
These aren't the events dramatized by Taylor. Instead he opts for the people who walked the streets, worked in the shops, drank in the pubs, and placed bets at the bookie's shop. People like Gerry, the first major character we encounter. A working-class Catholic like any other, he has trouble settling down and finding a job in the Ulster of the 1960s. So he joins the British army to earn money, learn a trade, and give some shape to his existence. While he undergoes training and grows to like army life, Ulster erupts in chaos and, in the end, he finds himself back on the streets of Belfast, forced to use his military training against the very community that nurtured him. The ironic reversal in the story-the young man sent back to fight against his own people-might seem like a pat ending, but Taylor handles it well. Ulster life was full of appalling ironies and brutal coincidences.
The two most impressive stories are about the randomness of the violence in Ulster and, in particular, the savage cruelty of the effect of bombs detonated in cities and towns when people were going about their daily business. The title story, "Only Wounded", paints a picture of an unremarkable morning in the town of Bangor, County Down. A mother, Susan, is out shopping with her child. A street-cleaner, Willie, is doing his rounds. Two women are walking along the street toward their weekly lunch together. It's all as ordinary as the day is long and people are doing what they do wherever the grass grows. Then Taylor explodes the bomb:
"The bright sunlight was dimmed by a brighter light and a thousand thunderclaps tore the gentle day apart as the ground-up ammonium nitrate, secreted the night before in one of Willie's bins, was ignited by its timed detonator.
"The blast vapourized the bins, its violent heat melting the tarmac beneath the barrow, and blowing out the plate glass window for a radius of one hundred yards from the epicentre. Only the crystal tinkling of the falling glass broke the stunned, numbed silence.
"Willie Cauldwell did not scream. Willie Cauldwell could not scream. The blast emptied his lungs of air milliseconds before turning half his chest into a grisly pulp. Besides, he no longer had a head."
This is powerful, restrained writing. It stays away from overstatement and conveys the sudden, shocking devastation of a bombing. (In this instance Taylor's writing comes close in tone to some of the powerful passages in Eureka Street, a recently published novel about Northern Ireland by Robert McLiam Wilson. Wilson's novel also concentrates on the ordinary and devotes one coldly effective chapter to a notorious bombing in the centre of Belfast in the 1970s).
Taylor isn't always so good at depicting Northern Ireland's strangeness. A few of the stories in Only Wounded are just too mechanically contrived to make a point. For instance, the story "Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot" features an IRA assassin enjoying a little rare relaxation, chatting with a stranger in a pub. When the assassin is given his next assignment, the target is the man he just met. Also, there's a structural problem with this book. The linking device is a series of vignettes about Pat and Neill, two men-one a Catholic, the other a Protestant-who remain friends through the Troubles, even when Pat emigrates to Canada. Pat and Neill are characters obviously meant to carry the burden of symbolism. They have guns and never aim them at each other. Instead they go wildfowling together. They don't ring true and Only Wounded is the lesser book for their presence.
But that is only technique-Only Wounded is impressive in its total movement, mood, and tone. It isn't about the picture of Northern Ireland that is favoured internationally, with hectoring demigods of either side blathering on about minority rights and ancient wrongs. Instead it offers a series of clear pictures that are, by turn, powerful, poignant, and never partisan.
John Doyle is the editor of the Globe and Mail's Broadcast Week.