Those We Left Behind

TWLBWritten by Stuart Neville — When the police burst their way into the neat Belfast suburban house, after an alarm call from neighbours, they walk straight into a scene from hell. Two children, brothers, clutch each other on the bed, while on the floor is the ruined body of their foster father. He has been savagely beaten to death with a cast iron ornament. The room is an abattoir, the neat wallpaper transformed into a mad abstract canvas of blood spray and body tissue. The younger boy, Ciaran Devine, confesses to the crime, his story unshakeable in the teeth of persistent questioning. He and his brother Thomas are sent to a young offenders’ institution. But in the here and now, Thomas has already been released, detained only as an accessory to the crime.

Ciaran, a model resident with not a single black mark against his name during his detention, has also been deemed ready for release on licence, and he walks hesitantly way from the prison in the direction of the rest of his life. At his side is probation officer Paula Cunningham, and she makes a courtesy call to the police officer who sat for long hours with Ciaran taking his statement in the aftermath of the killing. DS Serena Flanagan is now Detective Chief Inspector Flanagan, but she is just returning to work after treatment for breast cancer. Flanagan has long thought that there was something not quite right about Ciaran’s confession, and after she talks to Cunningham, she resolves to investigate further.

Someone else has a fierce interest in Ciaran Devine, now that he is walking free. It is none other than Daniel Rolston, the natural son of the man butchered by Ciaran. His mother never recovered from her husband’s murder, and so Daniel has a score to settle. Flanagan, meanwhile, is not only doing her career no good by trying to re-open the Devine-Rolston case, but suspects that the deaths of a fellow cancer sufferer and her husband are not as easily explained as the investigating officers would like people to believe.

Neville portrays the chilling relationship between the Devine brothers with unerring skill. We know that there is an evil bond between them, but just what it is we learn only at the end of the book in a dramatic finale played out on a dark beach, with the waves of the Irish Sea crashing across the sand. Flanagan herself is beautifully drawn. Her vulnerability now that she feels no longer attractive to her husband as a result of her cancer surgery is almost heartbreaking. On the other hand, we know she is reckless; she is prepared to use her femininity to draw the truth out of the damaged Ciaran, even though what she is doing is wildly unprofessional. You will wince at the risks she takes, irrespective of the wedge she is driving between her herself and her family.

Death stalks the pages of Those We Left Behind, and its shadow is dark and menacing. Neville is a compassionate and skilled writer, however, and as we reach the last page of the book, a tiny flickering flame of redemption burns in the night. As small as the flame is, it is a testament to how a writer can describe truly awful events and leave readers sadder, certainly – but also wiser.

The author spoke to us at length just after the publication of his novel Ratlines in our 2013 interview.

Harvill Secker
Print/Kindle/iBook
£6.02

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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