When Alice goes down the rabbit hole she finds herself in a world so different from her own that she has to learn how to read it completely afresh. When English readers come to a new novel in Claire McGowan’s Paula Maguire series they have to remember that as far as they are concerned Northern Ireland is also a very different world and that they cannot assume they will automatically appreciate the memories that shape either the land or the people who live in it. A Savage Hunger, the fourth Maguire novel, begins with a memory of Belfast in 1981, a memory of the hunger strikes that saw ten men die in a protest designed to re-establish their status as political prisoners. If I dredge my memory I can just about recall those deaths. I might even be able to bring to mind the name of Bobby Sands, who was elected to Parliament while he was on hunger strike. But I am English and I live in the English Midlands. If I lived in Northern Ireland I would certainly recall far more: that each death sparked further riots and further casualties, and although this new book is set in 2013 the memory and the casualties are never far from the consciousness of those who still live in what, we should not forget, is a British province.
However, as McGowan reminds us, hunger was a potent force in Ireland as a whole long before even the earlier hunger strikes of 1917. It was the hunger caused by the potato famine of the 1840s and 50s that caused mass migration from the land. And, even today, it is a scourge of many younger folk who develop an eating disorder and find themselves wasting away, very often, although they may not realise it, as a protest of their own against being robbed of control over other aspects of their lives. One such young woman is Alice Morgan, daughter of Lord Morgan and his less than caring wife, Rebecca, student at a very suspect university and previously an inmate of a rehab centre where she had been force fed as a treatment for anorexia. Alice has gone missing and for all that the PSNI can find out she might just as well have gone down her very own rabbit hole.
The missing persons unit to which Paula was attached as forensic psychologist has been disbanded and its personnel reallocated. Paula finds herself working with the PSNI in her home town of Ballyterrin and is assigned to look into Alice’s disappearance from a local church, along with a much venerated holy relic, the finger bone of Saint Blannard. Alice is not the only young woman to have vanished from this location. On the same day, over thirty years earlier, while the hunger strikers continued their protest, Yvonne O’Neill also went missing and no trace of her has never been found. Given that the chief suspect in that case still lives locally and that his behaviour is highly suspicious, it is natural that the focus of the case should centre at first on him.
Anderson Garrett, now in his sixties, is far more concerned about the disappearance of the relic than he is about Alice, whose plight is clearly of little importance to him when compared with the loss of prestige that his local church might suffer. In this he is just one of several instances of both individuals and institutions who put their own reputations and convenience above the needs of the young people who are entrusted to their care. Both the rehab clinic that Alice has attended and the private university at which she is now a student are prime examples of establishments that are in business simply to make money and Rebecca, Alice’s mother, nails her self-centred colours to the mast in a press conference that will long live in the memory. When we are reminded that it is thought the hunger strikers went on long after terms had been discussed because those organising the protest kept that information from them in order to get greater international coverage, it is clear that one of the main concerns in the novel is the way in which individuals are seen as expendable by those who hold power over them. And, while that may be an Irish story, it is also one with which readers from any national background can identify.
As in any crime series, running alongside the main plot line is the more personal one of the main character. Two years have passed since we were last in Ballyterrin and Paula’s daughter, Maggie, is now a lively presence, showing far more enthusiasm for the preparations for ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’s’ wedding than Paula could ever muster. There still lingers a doubt, however, about the little girl’s parentage and the questions that Paula has about her own mother’s disappearance also refuse to be put to rest. Neither issue is completely resolved in this novel although there are indications towards the end as to what the next chapter in both narrative arcs might be.
I have to admit that I am fascinated by Claire McGowan’s books because of the way in which she is attempting to make sense of what it means to be living in Northern Ireland in the wake of the peace process. However, I would read her work anyway because she is a writer who is growing in strength with each novel and if you haven’t yet encountered this series you have a treat in store.
(With thanks to Headline who made this available for review.)