Following the success of his second novel, The North Water, Ian McGuire returns with the page-turning tale of two Irishmen in 1860s Manchester, England, set on different paths of justice and vengeance. The Abstainer takes its departure point from a real-life event: the 1867 hanging of three Irishmen in Manchester for the suspected murder of a British policeman.
From there, McGuire unspools a gritty and moody story of James O’Connor, the abstainer of the novel’s title, recently sober and fleeing his native Dublin, chased by ghosts of a dead wife and missed chances. Now a policeman for the Manchester division, he is used to infiltrate an underground group known as the Fenians, an Irish brotherhood dedicated to the destruction of British rule by violent means at every turn. His nemesis is the Irish American Civil War veteran Stephen Doyle, fresh from the blood-soaked battlefields of America, who covertly enters Manchester to exact vengeance for the three hanged Irish rebels. The unexpected arrival of O’Connor’s nephew from America raises the personal stakes for the quiet Irish lawman when the young lad volunteers to infiltrate the Fenians to find Doyle.
The Abstainer succeeds in keeping the reader tense and uneasy, much like the polluted, portentous air hanging over Manchester. The brooding and lyrically written cat-and-mouse narrative of Doyle and O’Connor is excellent; however, one feels a lost opportunity for a more complex historical novel populated with deeper back stories. But if the reader is looking for a taut tale exploring the brutal vagaries of men’s hearts, The Abstainer is a provocative novel that invites further discovery of a troubled time.