The city of Belfast has had a tumultuous and violent history, but it has proved no less colourful and inspiring for writers than any other capital. In these ten books, Belfast is as much a character as the protagonist.
In Mystery Man, the fictional protagonist is the owner of the real and treasured No Alibis bookshop on Botanic avenue. When the Private Eye next door closes down, his customers come to the bookshop for help. He can just about handle a pair of missing leather trousers, but then Nazi’s get involved; misadventures ensue. Not everyone is going to love Bateman’s humour – it’s self-deprecating, a little absurd, and isn’t afraid to poke fun at the characters of Belfast. But for most, it will prove a great read.
The Star Factory is Carson’s memoir of Belfast, described by some ‘as the best book that has ever been written about Belfast.’ The poet’s immense imagination transforms Belfast into multiple cities, each offering a story of its own. It is a meticulously researched and exuberant medley, each chapter linked to the next by a single word. It is clear in The Star Factory that Carson is in love with language, evident in every page of this love letter to the city.
When a body is found on waste ground in Belfast in 1981, police are prepared to treat the death as unsolvable. That is until Detective Sean Duffy notices that the severed hand on the the victim’s chest does not in fact belong to the body. Before long, another body is discovered that seems to confirm the existence of a homophobic serial killer. What follows is an intricate and fast-paced crime story, one that stands out because of its chaotic backdrop, a city electrified by conflict. It is a fearless trip into the darkest days of Belfast.
Where They Were Missed begins in Protestant East Belfast during the 1980s, seen through the eyes of a child, Saoirse. She does not understand why the other children bully her, or why police sirens wail through the night. It is clear however that something weighs heavily on her parents. Ten years later, in Donegal, Saoirse begins to wonder about the tragedy that dislocated them from Belfast, and what her extended family is keeping from her. The emotional cost of the Troubles has never been so faithfully described.
The Falls Road and extraterrestrial refugees might seem like an odd pairing, but then again, Belfast has always been a city defined by its divisions. Although the plot is fairly straightforward, Sacrifice of Fools is elevated by its nuanced treatment of gender and ethnicity. The novel follows Andy Gillespie, a Loyalist and former criminal, as he attempts to clear his name of a series of murders. To do this, he enlists the help of a Catholic policewoman and an Alien lawyer in order to solve these murders before cross-community relationships are irrevocably shattered. Sacrifice of Fools is unmistakably Belfast, just with 80,000 new faces.
Eureka Street is perhaps one of the most famous books about Belfast. The novel follows the friendship of Jake Johnson and Chuckie Lurgan; two working class men, one Catholic, one Protestant. Both struggle to form loving and stable relationships in a city wracked by bombs and political tension. Meanwhile, the mysterious graffitied initialism ‘OTG’ begins appearing throughout the city. A moving and often funny portrayal that never patronises, McLiam paints a picture of Belfast that is populated by some brilliantly realised characters, a city that any resident reader will be able to identify for all its telling landmarks.
Danny Morgan lives an ordinary life – he’s a call centre worker, a young father, and is constantly plagued by doubts of what his life could have been. One particularly bad day, he comes home to find his girlfriend and baby son have vanished. He quickly discovers this is not a conventional missing persons case, and finds himself tumbling down the rabbit hole into a world where something sinister lurks under the nose of modern-day Belfast. Donaghy weaves together the disparate threads of balancing a household budget and Irish mythology to form a book that is offensive and charming in equal measure, and packed with humour that has drawn comparisons to Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams.
Bog Child follows Fergus, an 18-year-old boy studying for his exams. At the same time, however, he has to worry about his imprisoned brother on a hunger strike and his job as a courier for the provisional IRA. At night, he dreams of Mel. She is the titular bog child, a girl murdered centuries ago in a time not so different from his. O’Dowd posthumously won the Carnegie medal for her novel and it’s not difficult to see why – Fergus is a character at odds with the beliefs of his family and his country, and his journey to freedom is gripping.
Saturday is an ordinary day for Danny. He pulls pints behind the bar of the International Hotel for his customers, odd creatures that spring from all walks of life. There have been stirrings of what is to come, but it is this Saturday that will be the last ordinary day in Belfast, the city teetering on the cusp of the Troubles. Set in January 1967 on the eve of the inaugural meeting of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, The International might be understated but packs an emotional punch. Weighted with a historical resonance, we peek from Danny’s perspective into the lives of ordinary people that are about to be changed forever.
In any conflict, the truth can be difficult to pin down. The truth commissioner, Henry Stanfield, arrives in Belfast to try and do so. His efforts will irrevocably change his life and the lives of three other men. A portrait of a society and a city trying to heal itself through reconciliation, The Truth Commissioner maps Stanfield’s journey through an inhospitable landscape of evasions and bias with impressive structure and narrative skill. It is a novel that asks the question: is it worth stirring up the past in the pursuit of truth?