The Ghost Factory
By Jenny McCartney
4th Estate, 272pp, £12.99/$17.99
The Ghost Factory is set in Northern Ireland at the tail end of the Troubles. While there may be an uneasy peace between the paramilitary groups, certain cycles of in-house violence – vigilantism, extortion, punishment beatings, score-settling of all kinds – are intensifying. Walled up in the “raging wee cantons” of Belfast, decent, amusing, thoughtful people try not to get sucked in; to bend the arc of their lives away from men with pot bellies, weaselly eyes and arsenic in the soul.
Our narrator and guide is Jacky, a sensitive, intelligent, laconic young man, edging his own way through the tensions in the streets of his hometown. His mother has been dead since he was two. His beloved father, Big Jacky, passes away as the novel gets going. He has dropped out of university and doesn’t yet have a Plan B.
Jacky’s best friend is a somewhat simple soul known as Titch, who ends up taking a ferocious pounding from a local terror gang. This is to teach him a lesson and make an example of him after an incident of petty theft and disrespect – to protect “order” within the community. But above all, it is to satisfy the perpetrators’ own sadistic urges. Violence begets despair and further violence and the delicate equilibrium of Jacky’s life and friendships is soon in ruins.
In her first novel, journalist Jenny McCartney does a splendid job of evoking time, place and people. With seemingly the lightest of taps to her fund of prose, gems come tumbling across the pages. Darkness slowly fills a bedroom “like black ink pouring into water”. Of his days studying English at Queen’s University Belfast, Jacky recalls that “by the time you had prodded and tugged everything out of a book it had often quietly died on you, like a patient left open for too long on an operating table”.
Later, examining a photograph of his father and his best friend back in their showband days, he finds “both of them managing somehow to look 18 and 45 at the same time”. Anyone familiar with the heyday of the Irish showbands will know how true this sounds.
In the space of a few sentences and some perfect turns of phrase, McCartney has a way of burrowing into the fears and insecurities of her main characters, gently stirring our sympathy and interest. “There is no emotion as reliable as loneliness,” Jacky observes. “It turns up bang on time and promises never to let you go.” Of Titch, who has an incorrigible shoplifting habit, we read that he was “so close to his mother, so dependent on her bottomless love for him, that if he hadn’t occasionally practised some minor subversions to proclaim his difference from her, he would simply have melted into her and ceased to exist”. The relationship between Jacky and his father is beautifully etched through Jacky’s reminiscences.
While there is no going overboard on local colour, The Ghost Factory is doused in enough caustic but beguiling Belfast wit to allow outsiders to understand why a place that once seemed one of the world’s epicentres of fear and loathing could still command such affection.
McCartney also excels in dealing with the shifting sands of the relationships that boys form in adolescence. Her writing about Irish pub life is spot-on too. While a handful of peripheral characters sail too close to caricature, and some of the attempts at comic dialogue don’t quite come off, these are minor blemishes only.
A bigger problem arises when Jacky eventually needs to make himself scarce and flees to London. There he becomes “an adult orphan renting a single room with a funny old couple who like the television on too loud”.
The London segment is a necessary plot development, and it leads to the hero finding love, but it does mean that quite a lot of the air goes out of the novel for a time. McCartney’s London has none of the savour or acuity of McCartney’s Belfast, and her prose loses some of its verve and saltiness.
So, even though he goes back there for one final, desperate spin of his own personal cycle of violence, it is a kind of relief to the reader when Jacky returns home. By now The Ghost Factory has shifted up a gear or two, and for a few chapters we find ourselves reading a novel of suspense with a splash of black comedy. A pleasing coda shows us how everything turns out, 10 years later.
The Ghost Factory is poignant, yet never mawkish; witty, yet rarely glib. It looks the ugly face of Belfast square in the eye, but without histrionics, and the city’s better nature stays in view as well. McCartney allows the reader to get some measure of the grief that will silt up the souls of many for years to come, but this is accomplished through gentle insistence, not the harassment that a more excitable writer might resort to.
A worthy testament to deeply troubled times and an affirmation of hope for better days.
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