February 26, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
First published in the UK as The Twelve, Stuart Neville's debut novel The Ghosts of Belfast is a memorable literary thriller. The bloody politics and past of Northern Ireland are explored through Neville's dark and troubled protagonist Gerry Fegan, a former terrorist.
The book is a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category, and author James Ellroy called the book "the best first novel I have read in years."
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"For something that reads as if it were written in a hellish fury, Neville's novel is a coldly lucid assessment of the fragility of the Irish peace. Gerry Fegan may not be the brightest of bulbs, but he has the clarity of vision to see that men who operate entirely for their own gain and with total indifference to human life aren’t the best people to run a country. There’s neither rest nor redemption for this anguished antihero, who knows that despite all the ghosts he has avenged, there will be more waiting in the shadows."
As a teenager playing guitar in my first bands, I had a very clear plan for my life. First I would become a rock star and tour the world, and when I got too old for that, I would write novels for the rest of my days. It more or less worked out that way, except I missed out the rock star bit.
Music has been an important part of my life since I was a kid, so it creeps into everything I do. A few of these songs were in my mind as wrote The Ghosts of Belfast, and others came to mind afterwards. They are loosely arranged in the order of the aspects in the book that they relate to, so you could view these as a kind of soundtrack.
"The Man Who Sold the World" - David Bowie
A song about a great and mythical con trick is the perfect analogy for the politics of Northern Ireland. The politicians who fueled conflict for decades, at the cost of thousands of lives, are now the very same people reaping the rewards of the peace process that is the backdrop for The Ghosts of Belfast. Sowers of hate now present themselves as men of peace. They didn't sell the world, but they sure as hell sold Northern Ireland.
"God Loves a Drunk" - Richard Thompson
This is hardly a cheery song, being an alcoholic's prayer for "no more DT's, no shakes, and no horrors", and it reflects Gerry Fegan's state of mind as we find him at the start of The Ghosts of Belfast. Thompson's bleak lyrics compare alcoholism to religion ("His shouts and his curses are just hymns and praises"), the drink offering a twisted form of salvation to the addict as "he screams at his demons alone in the darkness." Probably not a song to play at your wedding, then.
"Psycho Killer" - Talking Heads (live version from Stop Making Sense)
I don't really have to explain the connection to the book with this song, do I?
"Blood Makes Noise" - Suzanne Vega
Gerry Fegan can't rest because of the constant screaming of his followers, the ghosts of the people he killed during the Troubles. I don't think Suzanne Vega had quite the same thing in mind when she wrote "there's something in my blood denies the memory of the act," or that she can't hear "in the thickening fear," but that's the great thing about words, either in songs or stories: we all bring our own meanings to them.
"Me and the Devil Blues" - Robert Johnson
There's an early scene in The Ghosts of Belfast where Gerry Fegan is working on restoring an old guitar left to him by a friend who died in prison. He has the radio on in the background, and it's playing blues. He doesn't understand the music, but he hopes it'll somehow soak into him so that he can learn to play the guitar when it's finished. The book doesn't specify what song, but I think "Me and the Devil Blues" is appropriate. It's about guilt and the fear of damnation, both of which drive Fegan's actions as the novel progresses. As it happens, the first short story I ever sold was based on Robert Johnson's murder, and shared its title with this song. It's available as part of a free downloadable short story collection at http://www.stuartneville.com/the-six/.
"Atlantic City" - Bruce Springsteen
Along with Richard Thompson, Springsteen is the king of the narrative song. "Atlantic City" starts with a reference to a bombing, then goes on to describe the intersection of politics and organised crime, and the helplessness of those who are swept along, exploited by the corrupt ("Last night I met this guy, and I'm gonna do a little favour for him"). Even those who are drawn into violence by the circumstances of their surroundings, like Gerry Fegan, are not immune to guilt. But there is a glint of hope in "Atlantic City"'s sad chorus: "Maybe everything that dies someday comes back."
"Coming In On Time" - John Martyn
This song is about Martyn's mother, who left him as a young child. The lyrics portray the mother as an almost mythic figure, both saviour ("She's coming back to take me away") and monster ("She's a killer, she's a demon"). The maternal theme runs throughout The Ghosts of Belfast; those whom Gerry Fegan most wants to redeem himself with are mothers, from his own to Marie McKenna. There's a scene where Marie drives her daughter and Fegan to a remote village in an attempt to escape their pursuers, and it's one of the few moments of peace in the book. I always imagined this song playing in the background, as Marie offers Fegan the tainted salvation the lyrics imply.
"Search and Destroy" - Iggy and the Stooges
This is a primal scream of a song, all anger and hate. It's a big ugly wall of noise that brilliantly sums up Iggy Pop's early years with The Stooges. The violence of it is a perfect aural accompaniment to a force of nature like Gerry Fegan as he wages his vendetta.
"Protection" - Massive Attack
This is a beautiful song, full of restrained power. It's a strange mix of violent devotion ("I'll take on any man in here who says that's not the way it should be"), self-destruction ("Doing so much harm, doing so much damage") and self-sacrifice ("I'll stand in front of you, take the force of the blow"). Like the best love songs, it has strands of romance, melancholy and madness. The parallel with Gerry Fegan is his dogged protection of Marie and her daughter Ellen, even at the risk of his own life.
"Back in Black" - AC/DC
Some might dismiss this song as macho posturing, but if you consider where the band was at the time, it has a bit more depth beneath the swagger. Many thought AC/DC were finished after the death of original vocalist Bon Scott, but they returned triumphant with this chunk of balls-out stripped-down rock. It's raw and elemental, and the lyrics are about defying the odds, surviving the blows, being "cut loose from the noose," and generally sticking it to the enemy. Much like Gerry Fegan, in other words.
Stuart Neville and The Ghosts of Belfast links:
Alison's Book Marks review
Avid Book Reader review
Barnes & Noble Review review
Blogging for a Good Book review
The Book Book review
Book Lover's Blog review
Dallas Morning News review
Fantasy Book Critic review
International Noir Fiction review
Los Angeles Times review
Mysterious Reviews review
New York Times review
Open Letters Monthly review
Washington Post review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (highlights of the week's comics & graphic novel releases)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (highlights of the week's book releases)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists