Northern Ireland’s brutal era of communal conflict did not end with the peace deal signed in 1998, Flynn Berry reminded us Northern SPY (Viking, 278 pp., $ 26), A chilling, gorgeously written story of a modern community filled with ancient grievances. Life goes on in the province – people work, produce children, see friends – but everyone needs to take a side: Protestant or Catholic? United Kingdom, or United Ireland?
The BBC’s radio producer Tessa Daly has just returned from work at Maternity Leave, when she watches television and sees her life is going to be a mess. On screen is her beloved sister Marian, her face obscured by a black ski mask, depicted at a gas station in the process of being robbed by armed intruders. The Irish Republican Army claims responsibility. Is Marian a terrorist?
“It can come as a shock,” one detective tells Tessa, “to know that the person you love has joined.”
Berry is a beautiful writer with the most complex, sophisticated, nuanced understanding of the place, says Terry, where Dalits and their friends “are afraid that they tell us when to fear, when to calm down”.
Desperate to help her sister and protect her baby son, Tessa is transported further into a shadowy, dangerous world of weapons caches, undercover operatives, police informants and bugging operations. It is a dangerous place of confrontational allegiance in which the first person may be the most committed to the terrorists. The berry keeps the tension almost completely elevated, even at the end the plot is slightly submerged.
At the heart of the story is Tessa’s furious relationship with Marianne, almost as a metaphor for Northern Ireland. “Our last argument, about a film she loved and hated, lasted so long that in the end I felt that we were about to change sides and debate the other’s thing,” says Tessa.