Benacre’s (Easter, Smoke and Mirrors, 2014) short story collection trails an Irishman who’s been training most of his life to carry out a planned terrorist strike in London.
In the author’s previous novel, Michael McCann was an Irish Republican Army Cleanskin (akin to a sleeper terrorist with no criminal background) stationed in London to help launch a bombing on Easter Friday. This collection of chronological stories, starting in 1968, follows his life from his birth to the 2016 attack. Provisional IRA leader Frank O’Neill courts 15-year-old Michael for the cause, eventually sending him to Libya and later to Afghanistan to train as a soldier. Frank keeps Michael “under wraps” until the IRA makes plans for an assault on such a grand scale that they believe it will finally unite Ireland. The stories here are comparable to chapters in a novel; the tale of Michael in Afghanistan fighting with the mujahedeen against the Russians, for instance, is comprised of four stories that make up a single narrative. As a result, readers will likely want to read the stories sequentially, like a novel (as the author recommends), to subvert potential confusion. Some of them, including the one-page “Murder by Suicide,” could have been amalgamated with others to avoid repetitiveness. Michael is generally a cold character—a calculated killer who avoids genuine relationships with the women he chooses to bed. But a series of first-person accounts of Michael’s childhood generate sympathy and showcase Benacre’s knack for description. “A Picture to Keep” is a standout: 4-year-old Michael explores a bomb’s devastating aftermath, frantically searching for his mother and siblings; its simple passages (“I was bleeding from somewhere, from everywhere it seemed”) offer dynamic, harrowing imagery. The book’s historical backdrop, too, is first-rate; Michael’s life, for example, is affected by the ongoing Troubles, the war in Afghanistan, and even 9/11, ultimately leading to the Provisional IRA’s disarmament and Frank’s forming a resurgent version of the terrorist group. A later story, “Morning Tea,” zeroes in on Patricia Whelan, another Cleanskin, who will hopefully have a collection (or novel) of her own.
This book’s strong, sometimes-insightful focus on its protagonist makes it a definite improvement on the author’s prior outing.