Source: Review copy
Publication: 2nd April 2020 from Dome Press
Tony, Hugh and Karen thought they’d seen the last of each other thirty years ago. Half a lifetime has passed and memories have been buried. But when they are asked to reunite – to lay ghosts to rest for the good of the future – they all have their own reasons to agree. As they take the ferry from Northern Ireland to Scotland the past is brought in to terrible focus – some things are impossible to leave behind.
In The Last Crossing memory is unreliable, truth shifts and slips and the lingering legacy of the Troubles threatens the present once again.
This review is going to be hard to write, because The Last Crossing blew me away. Perhaps an unfortunate choice of words now I come to think about it, because it is a book about what we euphemistically refer to as ‘The Troubles’, as if the war in Northern Ireland weren’t the bloody conflict that we grew up with.
The Last Crossing deals with that recent time and is also bang up to date as it revisits those not long past days and shows us how the past can never really be forgotten.
McGilloway’s writing is sublime; this is fluid prose that strikes deep and on a number of levels, showing the human cost of the conflict, the cruelty and the many different ways in which acts of terror were both perpetrated and funded.
But it does this in a way that is deeply personal and emotive, through vivid and authentic characterisation of two very real people, whose own personal tragedies fuelled their involvement in a war that perpetuated more tragedy; an endless repeating circle.
It felt incredibly real to me not least because I spent some time going backwards and forwards to Belfast during that large part of that time, spent nights waking up listening to the aftermath of bombs going off, had been warned about taking black taxis and shuddered at the wee boys with big guns who patrolled the streets day and night. Once I was trapped in the Dockers’ Club in Pilot Street as a gun battle took place outside; that small occurrence was a source of real terror to me and I never will forget the way that friends there took daily moments like that in their stride, part of what it was like to live your life in a war torn country.
All that came back to me as I read McGilloway’s book. A book about two people caught up in the crossfire, making choices that would come back to haunt them thirty years later.
Flitting between two timelines, The Last Crossing traces with breath-taking, building suspense, the journey from Northern Ireland to Scotland of three people to find the body of a man whose death they had been party to thirty years before.
The pretext is closure for the family, but there’s so much more going on underneath. Tony and Karen once had a relationship, Hugh brought them together in the beginning and now he has called them back once more to finish what was started then.
Tony is the main character, whose life we learn about in the most detail. He lost his brother in an accident which scarred him; an accident which was the catalyst for a sudden desire for revenge, despite his father’s wiser counsel.
A teacher, Tony’s feelings were exploited by others for their own ends and he is slowly drawn in to a web of treachery and deceit with the most tragic circumstances. In this tense and sometimes stifling and brutal novel, it is the beauty and simplicity of the writing that carries the reader along as we consider the conflicting accounts of what happened thirty years ago and find that as the story progresses, our hearts have sped up and made their way into our mouths.
This is spell-binding fiction that speaks a deeper truth and McGilloway’s characters, flawed and manipulated, stumble their way towards a shocking conclusion that is the more shocking because it shows us that this will never be over. This is truth and reconciliation writ large and that’s why it has an importance beyond the page.
I loved the atmospheric writing, the terrific characterisation and the intertwining of the layered story threads into an utterly propulsive, compelling read and one which touched me on a deep level.
Verdict: You have to read this book. It is important, meaningful and quite extraordinary. I know I will read it again for its ability to stir up a range of emotions and because it teaches me something about the range and strength of human experience. That strength cannot be underestimated and neither should this book.
Brian McGilloway is the New York Times Bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Inspector Benedict Devlin and DS Lucy Black series. He was born in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1974. After studying English at Queen’s University, Belfast, he took up a teaching position in St Columb’s College in Derry, where he was Head of English until 2013. He currently teaches in Holy Cross College, Strabane. His first novel, Borderlands, published by Macmillan New Writing, was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger 2007 and was hailed by The Times as “one of (2007’s) most impressive debuts”. In 2014, Brian won BBC NI’s Tony Doyle Award for his screenplay Little Emperors, an award which saw him become Writer In Residence with BBC NI. Little Emperors is currently in development with Two Cities Television and BBC NI. Brian lives near the Irish borderlands with his wife, daughter and three sons.