The Abstainer

Ian McGuire

The Abstainer
Simon & Schuster Ltd
United Kingdom
28 July 2021

The Abstainer

Ian McGuire

The rebels will be hanged at dawn, and their brotherhood is already plotting revenge.

Manchester, 1867: Stephen Doyle, an Irish-American veteran of the Civil War, arrives from New York with a thirst for blood. He has joined the Fenians, a secret society intent on ending British rule in Ireland by any means necessary. Head Constable James O'Connor has fled grief and drink in Dublin for a sober start in Manchester. His job is to discover and thwart the Fenians’ plans whatever they might be. When a long-lost nephew returns from America and arrives on O'Connor’s doorstep looking for work, he cannot foresee the way his fragile new life will be imperilled - and how his and Doyle’s fates will be intertwined.

In this propulsive tale of the underground war for Irish independence, master storyteller Ian McGuire once again transports readers to a time when blood begot blood. Moving from the dirt and uproar of industrial Manchester to the quiet hills of Pennsylvania, The Abstainer is a searing novel in which two men, haunted by their pasts and driven forward by the need for justice and retribution, must fight for life and legacy. 


In my reading life, there are a handful of writers whose next novel I anxiously await. In 2016, I read the rollicking, adventure-filled historical thriller The North Water. With that, its author Ian McGuire became another to add to my list. The Abstainer is his third work of fiction. I’m not an avid reader of nonfiction so I love historical fiction – I’ve often learned about a subject that I normally consider outside my interest. It’s especially enjoyable when it’s fiction as impressively researched as this.

Setting the scene, the novel opens in Manchester with the real-life hanging of three men, now known as the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ who were members of the Irish Republican, or Fenian, Brotherhood, who’d been charged with the murder of a policeman. It’s against this backdrop that Irish police detective James O’Connor is assisting Manchester police. O’Connor is a recently widowed former alcoholic who is forced to move to Manchester by his superiors in Dublin. His task is to obtain information from spies regarding possible upcoming attacks by the Fenian Brotherhood. On learning that the murderous ex-U.S. Civil War soldier Stephen Doyle has been employed by the Brotherhood in a plot to cause chaos and destruction to the English, O’Connor begrudgingly acquiesces and allows the police to employ his young nephew Michael to infiltrate the Brotherhood as a spy.

Part cat and mouse chase, part police procedural, The Abstainer is a thoroughly captivating thriller. It has the air of an old fashioned ‘penny dreadful’, but not pejoratively. The story glides along at cinematic pace with some wonderfully tense scenes. Its characters are beautifully written: complex and humane, violent and perfectly flawed. With an ending that I could never have predicted The Abstainer has been one of the most rewarding reading experiences that I have had so far this year.

Jason Austin is a book buyer at Readings Carlton.

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