The Abstainer by Ian McGuire

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.

Cover image for The Abstainer

The Abstainer

Ian McGuire

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