It takes a special skill to combine a historical political backdrop with personal conflict. This is the stuff of a great novel — to switch between the worlds where our hearts and mind reside daily. Flynn Berry takes us to Northern Ireland with the sweep of her pen.
REESE'S BOOK CLUB PICK
“If you love a mystery, then you’ll devour [Northern Spy] . . . I loved this thrill ride of a book.”—Reese Witherspoon
“A chilling, gorgeously written tale…Berry keeps the tension almost unbearably high.” –The New York Times Book Review
The acclaimed author of Under the Harrow and A Double Life returns with her most riveting novel to date: the story of two sisters who become entangled with the IRA
A producer at the BBC and mother to a new baby, Tessa is at work in Belfast one day when the news of another raid comes on the air. The IRA may have gone underground in the two decades since the Good Friday Agreement, but they never really went away, and lately bomb threats, security checkpoints, and helicopters floating ominously over the city have become features of everyday life. As the news reporter requests the public's help in locating those responsible for the robbery, security footage reveals Tessa's sister, Marian, pulling a black ski mask over her face.
The police believe Marian has joined the IRA, but Tessa is convinced she must have been abducted or coerced; the sisters have always opposed the violence enacted in the name of uniting Ireland. And besides, Marian is vacationing on the north coast. Tessa just spoke to her yesterday.
When the truth about Marian comes to light, Tessa is faced with impossible choices that will test the limits of her ideals, the bonds of her family, her notions of right and wrong, and her identity as a sister and a mother. Walking an increasingly perilous road, she wants nothing more than to protect the one person she loves more fiercely than her sister: her infant son, Finn.
Riveting, atmospheric, and exquisitely written, Northern Spy is at once a heart-pounding story of the contemporary IRA and a moving portrait of sister- and motherhood, and of life in a deeply divided society.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
We are born with a startle reflex. Apparently it's caused by the sensation of falling. Sometimes, in his crib, my son will fling out his arms, and I hold my hand to his chest to reassure him.
It happens less often now than in the first months. He doesn't constantly think the ground is falling away beneath him. I do, though. My startle reflex has never been so strong. Of course it is, everyone's is at the moment. That's part of living in Northern Ireland, at this point in time, during this phase of terrorism.
It's difficult to know how scared to be. The threat level is severe, but, then, it has been for years. The government evaluates terrorist organizations based on capacity, timescale, and intent. At the moment, we should be worried about the IRA on all three counts. An attack might be imminent, but no one can say where.
The odds are, not here. Not on this lane, where I'm walking with the baby. A gunman isn't about to appear around the bend in the road. I always watch for one in Belfast, on my way to work, but not out here, surrounded by hedgerows and potato fields.
We live, for all intents and purposes, in the middle of nowhere. My house is on the Ards peninsula, a curve of land between Strangford Lough, a deep saltwater inlet, and the sea. Greyabbey is a tiny village, a twist on the lough road. Four hundred houses set among green fields and lanes and orchards. On the lough shore, canoes float in the reeds. This doesn't look like a conflict zone, it looks like the place you'd return to after a war.
Finn sits in his carrier on my chest, facing forward down the lane. I chat to him and he babbles back at me, kicking his heels against my thighs. Ahead of us, birds disappear into gaps in the hedgerow. At the edge of the pasture, a row of telephone poles rises along the road. Past them, the sky is white toward the sea.
My son is six months old. The conflict might be over by the time he can walk or read. It might end before he learns to clap or says his first word or drinks from a cup or has whole fruit instead of puree. All of this might never touch him.
It should already be over, of course. My sister and I were born near the end of the Troubles. We were children in 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, we painted peace signs and doves on bedsheets and hung them from our windows. It was all meant to be finished then.
Except bodies were still being found in peat bogs along the border. Searches were being conducted to find informers the IRA had disappeared. The coroner's inquests hadn't all finished, or the investigations into police collusion, and riots still broke out every year during marching season. At certain funerals, men in ski masks and mirrored sunglasses would appear in the cortege, chamber their handguns, and fire shots over the coffin, which was odd, since they said they'd decommissioned all their weapons.
So it was never peace exactly. The basic argument of the Troubles hadn't been resolved: most Catholics still wanted a united Ireland, most Protestants wanted to remain part of the UK. The schools were still segregated. You still knew, in every town, which was the Catholic bakery, which was the Protestant taxi firm.
How could anyone not have seen this coming? We were living in a tinderbox. Of course it was going to catch, and when it did, so many men were ready to throw themselves back into the fighting. Peace hadn't suited them. They hadn't made a success of it. In their statements and communiquŽs, I could sense their relief, like they were sleeper agents, left behind in an enemy country, glad that they hadn't been forgotten.
From the lane, I turn onto the lough road. The water is platinum with sunlight. It will be hot again today. I want this walk to last, but soon we're at the main street, and his day care. I kiss Finn goodbye, confident, as always, that between now and tomorrow morning I'll find the trick that will let me spend the day both at work and with him.
My phone rings as I near the bus stop. "Have you heard from Marian today?" my mother asks.
"There's supposed to be a thunderstorm." Marian has gone to the north coast for a few days. She is staying in a rented cottage on a headland near Ballycastle. "She's not diving, is she?"
"No," I say, not mentioning what Marian had told me about wanting to swim into the caves at Ballintoy, if she could time it right with the tides.
I hoped she would. I liked the thought of her swimming through the limestone arches, bobbing in the water inside the mouth of the caves. It would be like an antidote, the quiet and the spaciousness. The exact opposite of Belfast, of her work as a paramedic, sitting in the back of an ambulance, racing through red lights, steeling herself for the moment when the doors will open.
"There's no sense in doing that on your own."
"She's not diving, mam. See you tonight, okay?"
On Thursdays, when we broadcast our program, my mother collects Finn from day care, since I don't get home in time. It means a long day for her. She works as a housekeeper for a couple in Bangor. She cleans their house, buys their food, washes their clothes. They keep the thermostat so high all year that she works in a pair of shorts and a tank top. Twice a week, she puts on a coat to drag their bins down the long gravel drive and back up again. They recently spent half a million pounds to put a heated single-lane swimming pool under their house, which neither of us can believe she has never used.
"Not even when they're away?" asked Marian.
Our mam laughed. "Catch yourself on."
On the bus into the city, I look through my reflection at the lough. Across its vast surface, the faint shapes of the Mourne mountains rise in the distance.
I send Marian a message, then scroll up to the picture she sent me yesterday of herself standing on the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. Tourists used to wait for hours to cross the bridge, but now it hangs empty for most of the year, the waves crashing a hundred feet beneath it. In the picture, she is alone, her hands gripping the ropes, laughing.
Marian has wavy brown hair that she wears loose, or piled on top of her head with a gold clasp. We look similar-same eyes, and cheekbones, and dark hair-though Marian's is an inch shorter than mine, and softer. Her natural expression, when she's not speaking, is open and amused, like she's waiting to hear the end of a joke, while mine tends to be more grave. Both have their drawbacks. I often have to reassure people that I'm not worried when I am, in fact, thinking, and Marian, who has been a paramedic for six years, still gets asked on every shift if she's new to the job. She will say, "I'm going to insert an IV line now," and the patient will look alarmed and say, "Have you done that before?"
Neither of us looks like our mother, who is blonde and sturdy, with an air of brisk warmth. We look like our father and his side of the family, his sisters and parents, which seems unfair, given that we never see him, or any of them.
I allow myself to daydream until the road separates from the lough, then open my phone to start reading the news. I produce a weekly political radio program at the BBC. Some of the broadcasts devolve into local politicians shouting over each other, but others turn electric, especially now. You can't live in Northern Ireland at the moment and not be interested in politics.
When we reach Belfast, I stop at Deanes for a flat white. Everything about the cafe and the other customers seems ordinary. You can't tell from the outside, but the IRA has this city under its thumb. They run security rackets. Every building site has to pay them protection money, and all the restaurants in west Belfast have doormen. An IRA representative will tell the owner, "You need two doormen on Thursday and Friday nights."
"Wise up," the owner says. "I don't need security, it's only a restaurant."
Then they send in twenty lads to smash the place up, return the next day, and say, "See? I said you needed security."
It's easier to pay them the money than to complain. It's easier to do a lot of the things that they ask, given the alternatives.
Our former neighbor's son was caught selling drugs by the IRA. They accused him, without any irony, of endangering the community. She was told to bring him behind the Riverview shops for a punishment beating, but they ended up kneecapping him.
"You brought him to be beaten?" I asked.
"Aye, but I didn't say they could shoot him. They had no call to fucking shoot him."
Leaving the cafe, I turn down Dublin Road and Broadcasting House comes into view, a limestone edifice with giant satellite dishes angled from its roof. I've only been back at work for a couple of weeks. Those six months of maternity leave were dense, elemental. Returning to work, I felt like Rip Van Winkle, like I'd woken after decades, except no one else had aged. Nothing at the office has changed, and I have to act like I haven't either. If I seem distracted or tired, slower than before, my bosses might decide that someone without a baby, or at least not a single mother, would manage the job better. So I pretend to be well rested and focused, despite sleeping in four-hour increments at night, despite several times a day missing Finn so much it hurts to breathe.
In Broadcasting House, I hold my badge to the scanner and then loop the lanyard around my neck. Our morning staff meeting is about to start. I hurry up the stairs, down a corridor, and into a conference room crowded with news editors and correspondents.
"Morning," says Simon as I find a seat. "Quite a lot on today. Obviously we have the Milltown cemetery shooting, what's happening there?"
"It was a suicide attempt," says Clodagh.
"And what's his condition?"
"The Irish News has him critically ill and the Belfast Telegraph has him dead."
"Right. We'll wait before calling it."
"Who did we kill last year?" asks James.
"Lord Stanhope," says Simon. "I had a very stern call from him."
"And who's this man?"
"Andrew Wheeler," says Clodagh. "He's a property developer."
"Why would a property developer shoot himself in Milltown cemetery?" I ask.
Clodagh shrugs. "All we have is that he was found at the graveyard."
"We should wait on this," says Esther. Her tone is neutral but everyone feels chastened anyway. We don't cover suicides, to avoid inadvertently encouraging others.
"But is it in the public's interest to know?" asks Simon. "Does he have a paramilitary connection?"
"None of the groups have claimed him."
"Okay," he says. "Esther's right, let's hold off for now. Other stories kicking around today?"
"Another expenses scandal," says Nicholas. "Roger Colefax was on the Today program this morning."
"He wasn't brilliant, it has to be said. Very equivocal about the whole thing."
"Did he apologize?"
"No, but it looks like he's going to resign."
"We won't take it today unless he does step down. Priya?"
"We're on the Cillian Burke trial. It's going to collapse at any minute."
"Isn't he on tape confessing?" asks Nicholas.
"It was covert surveillance," says Priya. "And MI5 is refusing to reveal its methods. Their witness keeps saying he can't answer on the grounds of national security."
Nicholas whistles. Cillian Burke is on trial for ordering the attack in a market in Castlerock that killed twelve people. He has been a leader in the IRA since the Troubles, responsible for multiple car bombs and shootings. Now he will either be given a life sentence or be acquitted and reengage.
"There won't be a conviction," says Priya. "Not if MI5 won't explain the recording."
I doubt the security service will compromise. MI5 comes here to test new methods, to build capacity, to prepare its agents for their real fight, which is against international terror groups. We're only their training ground.
Simon turns to me. "Tessa? What do you have on Politics this week?"
"The justice minister is coming in," I say, and the room turns gratifyingly alert. "This will be her first interview since proposing the bill."
"Well done," says Esther, and the whip-round continues until it reaches sport, at which point everyone feels comfortable not listening. A few people read the newspapers on their laps while Harry says something about rugby. We're all grateful to sport, though, since they can fill any dead space on air, they're so used to talking about nothing.
After the meeting, Nicholas and I find a table in the canteen on the top floor, level with the roofs of other buildings and the dome of city hall. He says, ÒRight, what do we have?Ó
I show him the running order, though he needs very little producing. Nicholas became our political correspondent years ago. He started at the BBC in the '90s, riding to riots on his bicycle, traipsing into fields to interview British Special Forces officers.
I like to play a game with myself of finding a political figure or statistic that Nicholas doesn't already know. He could present tonight's program from a ditch, probably, but we still sit together working through the questions. He reads one aloud. "Let's be sharper here, don't you think?"
In person, he's kind and amiable, but he's a brutal interviewer. "These people have quite a lot of power," he says. "The least they can do is explain themselves."
We keep working until Clodagh calls him. "We've got Helen Lucas in reception and Danny's not back from Stormont, can you tape her interview?"
"Sure, sure," says Nicholas, gathering his papers and coffee cup. "Tessa, we're in good nick for tonight, aren't we?"
After he leaves, I put on a pair of headphones and listen to a speech Rebecca Main gave last week at a school in Carrickmacross. She has only been the justice minister for a few weeks, but she's already drawing large crowds of supporters and protesters. "The United Kingdom will never bend to terrorism," she says. I stop the clip, leaning forward. She is wearing a bulletproof vest. You can just make out its shape under her suit.
Rebecca Main lives in a house in south Belfast with a panic room and a security detail outside. I wonder if either helps her feel safe. I wonder how she feels about being constantly under threat.
Reading Group Guide
1. Though Tessa thinks of herself and Marian as close, she comes to realize that she has misunderstood and perhaps underestimated her sister. What do you think is the root of Tessa’s blind spot? How did Tessa and Marian’s relationship change when Tessa left for Trinity College in Dublin? How does it evolve over the course of the novel?
2. When justifying her job at the BBC to her Catholic neighbors, Tessa often says, “You can’t change it unless you’re in it”. Why do you think Tessa chose this line of work? Do you think she is conflicted about working for a British news organization?
3. Discuss Marian’s relationship with Seamus, Damian, and Niall, and the concept of blood versus chosen families. Do you think their bond is genuine outside of their dependence on one another to accomplish their goals? Who do you think Marian is closer to? Who knows her best?
4. Do you understand what Tessa means when she observes that working with the IRA “make[s] you feel special”? Discuss the book’s depiction of how an “ordinary” citizen can become radicalized. Have you heard similar stories before? What do you think of the way women are strategically employed by such organizations?
5. Like many war stories, the narrative of the Troubles has been overwhelmingly male. What changes when you view a conflict through the lives of women? Did the violence affect them in different ways?
6. Tessa recalls, “My mother was always polite to the British soldiers, even though as teenagers, two of her brothers were beaten up by soldiers . . . She never shouted at the soldiers, like some women on our road did, or threw rocks at their patrols. I understand now that she was trying to protect us”. Do you think Tessa relates to her mother’s actions now that she has a child of her own and is faced with her own set of choices about how to keep him safe? How do you think the story would be different if Tessa wasn’t a mother herself? Do you see her as a good mother?
7. What do you think about the way Tessa and Marian’s mother is treated by her wealthy employers in Bangor? What are some of the other ways that social class factors into the story?
8. Tessa oscillates between being furious and frustrated with Marian, pitying her sister for how difficult her life has been and feeling guilty over her own inaction. Are you sympathetic to any of Marian’s arguments for why she went down the road she did? How do you think you would feel if you were in Tessa’s position? Would you have agreed to help her?
9. Discuss Tessa’s relationship with Eamonn. Do you think his behavior was all manipulation and performance on his part? How would you compare or contrast the tactics and morality of MI5 as depicted in the book to that of the IRA?
10. In the aftermath of the traumatic events at the safe house, Tessa copes with fatigue and homesickness, and suffers from flashbacks. Even though she is reassured that she is safe, “the fear still spreads out, like black ink in water”. How do you think the trauma will reverberate and/or eventually settle in her life? Do you think she will ever tell Finn what took place?
11. Throughout Northern Ireland, centuries of occupation and decades of domestic terrorism have impacted those on both sides of the conflict and ordinary citizens alike. How effectively did Berry capture this reality in Northern Spy? Did Northern Spy make you think differently about the Troubles or give you a new perspective on the conflict that you hadn’t previously considered? Do you believe it is possible for healing and reconciliation to emerge from an entrenched conflict such as this one, that pits neighbor against neighbor and touches every corner of society?
12. How would you characterize Tessa’s transformation over the course of the novel? What do you think is next for Tessa, Marian, and Finn? If there were a sequel to this book, what would you imagine might happen?