Paul Burgess’ first novel re-humanises a Belfast still hardened by past and ongoing sacrifices

White ChurchSo when an academic emails you and asks you to consider reviewing his debut novel, it’s time for a stiff drop of Paddy isn’t it? Either that or carry on wading through the few dozen ‘biteens’ of Twitter outrage that come through each day.

When Paul Burgess sent me his email flyer for White Church, Black Mountain, I only bought in after I saw the flier for The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants, which sets out to explore ‘…the least fashionable community in Western Europe’.

The line – first used by Henry McDonald in a review of Burgess’s punk band Ruefrex back in 2005 – even makes it into one of the key climactic scenes of the novel. [So, is he an academic punk or a punk academic? – Ed]

That’s some ten year itch and, I have to say, after getting my review copy on Saturday and finishing it yesterday, this is some book. Why?

Well, for one, it has a plot. In too many books (and films) which try to treat with the troubles, and more problematically what came after, dispensing with a narrative is often used to paper over uncomfortable topics or unaccounted for cracks in the broader official narrative.

But Burgess is commendably clear about the story he wants to to tell and doesn’t spare his readers (or his characters) in the process of telling it.  For the most part its done simply and at times with searing (punk) honesty.

The unsocial and unforthcoming anti hero figure of Eban Barnard is the central device through which the story is able to flip between opening and closing decades of the Troubles and the ongoing efforts to manage its troubling [pun intended] legacy.

In the process it gives the reader a cold trip through the tepid waters of a Peace Process which has seemed more concerned with concealing the sins of the past, and nailing victims into isolation and silence than seeking any form of resolution or redemption.

Burgess works in appropriately sparse religious themes and language (the White Church) to re-assert a firm sense of belonging to place (the Black Mountain) to re-humanise a spare landscape hardened by the too long sacrifice of the troubles.

The bodily sacrifices (past and present) which emerge throughout the book gradually become (to paraphrase Jung) the rock against which lives are shattered. But for all its realism White Church Black Mountain is a sort of grim fairy story of the Peace Process.

As Bruno Bettelheim once noted of traditional fairy tales that they intimate “a rewarding life is within one’s reach despite adversity – but only if one does not shy away from hazardous struggles without which one can never achieve true identity”.

Well worth the read, if only for a fleeting escape from the grinding deterministic modalities that are the prime sectarian legacy of the Troubles. More widely, perhaps we should just fix ourselves not just to telling more stories, but to telling more brave and purposeful stories?


  • tmitch57

    As an academic in the social sciences rather than the humanities I tend to read non-fiction much more than fiction and I tend to just wait for the video version of literature. I haven’t really been much impressed with the movies that have come out of Hollywood on The Troubles, as most of the screenwriters seemed to have little real knowledge of Belfast and Northern Ireland and usually the stories were set outside of Northern Ireland. . The only movies I much liked were The Resurrection Men, The Boxer, and The Crying Game. I enjoyed Patriot Games as escapist literature and film, but wasn’t really impressed when I went back to the novel and saw that the republican splinter group roughly based on the INLA had Ulster in its name–no wonder it was a splinter group.

    About 25 years ago I read a lot of fictional literature on South Africa, both written in English or translated from Afrikaans to English, while I was working on my disseration on the country.. I was most impressed with Andre Brink, who died just two or three days ago, after a long career as a novelist in both his native Afrikaans and English. I also liked J.M. Coetzee and Christopher Hope. I was much less impressed with Nadine Gordimer, the favorite of the literary class in the U.S. and Western Europe. I would be interested in reading fiction that did as good a job of explaining unionist thinking, particularly working class/loyalist thinking as Brink did with Afrikaner thinking with A Dry White Season. I am familiar with the name of Gary Mitchell (no relation to my knowledge) but I haven’t actually read anything by him. Are there any good novelists out there writing about loyalists or unionists?

  • mickfealty

    I have a vague memory of seeing Patriot Games in Copenhagen when it came out with English colleagues. I thought it was a great romp at the time, but for the most part it was total inauthentic nonsense.

    Most recently I saw Shadow Dancer, Ben Bradby’s novel made into film, which looks at informing and betrayal in Republican Belfast: although it was shot in Dublin which is hellish distracting for those of us who implicitly feel the difference in the two cities.

    It felt like a working inwards from the outside and it had those gaps in the plot that simply did not make sense: whereas Burgess’s book is a serious working from the inside out. It’s particularly good at describing the ways in which paramilitaries casually and in small ways expropriate personal space.

    There’s a particularly good flash back passage in which Barnard describes his return to his mother’s how from his first day at work to find “some tattooed thug” tying bunting to the drainpipe outside his bedroom window: “It was the Loyalist marching season and this wanker hadn’t even asked permission”.

    It works on this smallest of descriptive levels. The rage at the unbidden invasion of privacy is palpable, but also remarkable within the context of the book’s narrative because it only comes up in occasional outshoots of rage in what is a remarkably controlled and buttoned in character.

    We have some great novelists in Northern Ireland, but I don’t think we have many who’ve taken on the Troubles in the full bore way Burgess does. Far fewer to take on the way Peace Process the has refused to look critically at our serial mistreatment of the victims of the violence.

    I would love to hear what others make of it. The paper version isn’t cheap, but I think it’s worth it. The Kindle version certainly is well within purchase even in these cash strapped times of austerity. We could maybe think about a digital bookclub meeting perhaps, on Google Plus?

  • tmitch57

    Yes, I did see Shadow Dancer and enjoyed it.

  • Perthstar

    ‘White Church, Black Mountain’ is quite simply a tour-de-force and then some. It’s clearthat as a debut novel, this is a painful testimony that was a long time in
    gestation. (Much like that of the main character, Eban Barnard). It seems to
    traverse genres; thriller, serious literary fiction, harrowing documentary with
    (it seems to me) undeniable glimpses of auto-biography.

    There havebeen many novels dealing with the troubled past of Ulster. However, ‘White Church, Black Mountain’ seems togenuinely transcend these with ease. It does so by bridging the past andpresent in an effortless-if harrowing- journey through the lives of ordinarypeople whose existence has been blighted, directly or indirectly by the troubles. All victims… even if some of them do not realise this.

    As with there-booted Province itself, maybe enough time had to pass for a book like this to emerge. Burgess has written something important here. Uncompromising, unapologetic, searingly honest, deeply compassionate, it is the kind of novel that comes along once in a very long while. The kind of novel that should be on an ‘A’ Level Literature school syllabus. Most especially in Northern Ireland.

    This book may well be the first authentically ‘classic’ work trying to come to terms with a society of post-conflict survivors.