Author: Patrick Radden Keefe
Summary: In December 1972, Jean McConville was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders; her ten children never saw her again until her body was found in 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland. Patrick Radden Keefe’s mesmerizing book on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath uses the McConville case as a starting point for the tale of a society wracked by violent guerrilla war. The brutal violence seared not only people like the McConville children, but also I.R.A. members embittered by a peace that fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland—and left them wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders. From radical and impetuous I.R.A. terrorists to the spy games and dirty schemes of the British Army, Say Nothing conjures a world of passion, betrayal, vengeance, and anguish.
Say Nothing, like its subtitle implies, is a narrative nonfiction account of the abduction and murder of Jean McConville during the Troubles in Northern Ireland—but it’s not just about that. More accurately, Patrick Radden Keefe introduces Jean McConville’s abduction before spending four times as many pages explaining the socio-political context for it; then, he almost exclusively focuses on other people before suddenly returning to Jean (and the content I was initially expecting) for about ten pages—and then the book ends. I certainly liked Say Nothing, but I didn’t love it—but is that because it was merely okay or because I was expecting something different?
This book took Radden Keefe almost four years to write and research, and it shows; the narrative is coherent, big political ideas become easily digestible, and Radden Keefe puts faces and names to a thirty-year period that is still contentious in 2019. But is it enough? I found myself drowsy no matter what time I read, Radden Keefe’s syntax drowning in the sheer weight of its content. If I’d known that Say Nothing was more about The Troubles than one woman’s murder, would that have changed things? I just don’t know. I remember reading both The Fact of a Body and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark in huge chunks, the prose just as engaging as any fiction book I could have been reading instead. I certainly tried to approach Say Nothing with this mindset, but it felt more like Incendiary or Public Enemies instead: an informative look at a historical crime, tied up with its particular historical period, digestible in thirty-minute chunks with some Wikipedia reading for good measure.
Toward the end of the book, Radden Keefe writes:
One theme that I had become fascinated with as a journalist was collective denial: the stories that communities tell themselves in order to cope with tragic or transgressive events…. In the intertwining lives of Jean McConville, Dolours Price, Brendan Hughes, and Gerry Adams, I saw an opportunity to tell a story about how people become radicalized in their uncompromising devotion to a cause, and about how individuals—and a whole society—make sense of political violence once they have passed through the crucible and finally have time to reflect.
It’s the only quote I underlined, and it occurs on page 340 out of 348.