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  • Writer's pictureJulie Mackin

I heard you sing a Rebel songs

Northern Spy by Flynn Berry

2023 Frenzied Bibliophile Challenge Category: PopSugar Challenge (Celebrity Recommendation)

Rating: 4/5 stars

Will you like this book? You might if you like:

  • Thrillers

  • Family dramas

  • Modern Irish history

  • The Crying Game (sans twist)

Back in 2011, my cousin married a lovely Irish woman in her hometown in Donegal, so Dan and I went to the wedding and spent a few days in Northern Ireland. The trip was slightly traumatic but not because of any political unrest, it all involved someone’s driving (not mine!). Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in Boston, the thought of someday visiting Belfast and taking a tour in a black cab along the Fells Road seemed impossible. When the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, so much changed. There was no longer a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. People could choose to be Irish or British or both.

Most of my life I have been fascinated by Ireland and I love to read books about its people and history, fictional and real. Flynn Berry’s thriller seemed like a perfect book: two sisters on two sides of the divide in Belfast. Tessa is a new mom, living in a quiet, largely Protestant village, far from the Catholic council estate in Belfast she grew up in. She and her sister, Marian, avoided getting mixed up with the IRA and Tessa thinks they have escaped, she works for the BBC and Marian is an ambulance driver. But then in one instance everything changes when Marian is captured on TV holding up a gas station with two IRA gunmen. Tessa wants to explain it all away; Marian must have been kidnapped by the IRA and forced to help them. The police, in the form of Detective Fenton, question Tessa and she sticks to her story that her sister would never join the IRA but Tessa begins to doubt.

This is a great thriller, I liked that nothing that happens seems inevitable. The reader can clearly see how Tessa is changing, how she rationalizes, how she gets sucked in. You can sense the seductiveness of a life in the IRA. “My point is, I don’t often feel powerful of a day. Most people don’t. Except now I do…I’m operating on a different plane, one that includes every battle fought in this war…of course I feel special.” (p.176). I think so much of the struggle can be summed up in those sentences and explain why there are some that don’t want the fighting to end.

[spoilers from here on out]

Berry had me on the edge of my seat! I didn’t think Tessa would join as an informer for MI5 and and then I was like ooh, relationship with Eamonn and then, like Tessa, I was really disappointed. I loved Marian, I felt like every time she revealed a layer of herself I was as shocked as Tessa. It’s funny how their mom was less surprised, but I think sometimes we have a hard time seeing our siblings in a different light. Obviously, I am reading this with a view that is a bit more sympathetic to the IRA, so I could see how it would be easy to recruit Marian. I am not sure that Tessa ever fully embraces the cause, not sure if this is more that she doesn’t want to do anything without her sister or she worries about being on the wrong side of history. Probably a little of both. I feel like Berry might be a bit sympathetic as well.

According to the blurb at the back of the book, the IRA in Northern Spy is “brilliantly imagined near-feature” organization. But you can see how it could so easily change, how it could turn into how the book describes it. In 2023, this book feels like a possibility. On that particular trip to Ireland in 2011, we stopped for breakfast at a gas station about an hour from the Dublin airport and I asked the clerk which Ireland we were in so I could pay with the appropriate tender. She just shrugged and said it didn’t matter, I could use either. I hope when I go back, that is always the answer.

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