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John Benacre
John Benacre, author
This collection of short stories is the first of three such volumes which compliment the novel “Easter, Smoke and Mirrors” and its sequel, “Shape, Shine and Shadow”. It concerns the life, times and upbringing of Michael McCann, the central character of the novels, who becomes a totally unknown and untraceable deep-cover Irish terrorist living and working in the heart of London. It spans the years from 1968 and the earliest rumblings of the ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, to 2015 and a resurgent Irish republican Army’s preparations for the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. McCann is pivotal to the planning and execution of a spectacular attack on Central London designed to coincide with that anniversary. It not only traces the violent and hedonistic upbringing of the ‘Cleanskin’ McCann, but it illuminates many other people, places, tactics, counter-measures and real historic events along the way. The other two volumes of short stories are “McCormac” and “The Elders”; which highlight McCann’s MI5 nemesis, Neill McCormac, born himself in the IRA heartland of South Armagh, and two godfather figures from the recent 30-year IRA campaign respectively. The theme of all five books - apart from giving a tantalizing insight into terrorist and security force procedures - is that no-one can ever be entirely sure who their neighbors are.
This chilling novel-in-stories from Benacre, the first of two volumes, charts the life of Michael McCann, the “cleanskin”—that is, not clearly connected—Irish Republican Army operative who, in Benacre’s novel Easter, Smoke and Mirrors attempts to stage a bombing in London in 2016. McCann digs deep into the question of how Michael came to this, covering nearly fifty years of recent history, starting before Michael himself is conceived. Early stories focus on his doomed mother in Dublin in the tumultuous late 1960s, her miserable marriage to an alcoholic, and her dalliance with the charming Frank O’Neill, a criminal with IRA connections who’s eager to see the “the North burning” and the Troubles to follow.

It's no spoiler to say that Ireland is so wracked with explosive violence or that Frank will be a guiding, paternal figure in Michael’s life—in fact, as McCann makes clear, it will be Frank who eventually impresses Michael into undertaking the 2016 attack. Young Michael faces horrors and loss that will rattle readers, but the tension threading through the collection concerns why his 41-year-old self will eventually attempt a bombing, especially when, early on, an attack tears his family apart.

That story illuminates Michael’s mother’s own secrets and hardiness, her drive to do what needs to be done, no matter how distasteful. Much of McCann unfolds from Michael’s perspective, as he comes of age, grows strong under Frank’s eye, and fights the Russians in Afghanistan with the Mujahadeen. But Benacre’s keenly interested in the context of that life, offering a clutch of stories that read as sharp colloquies between characters facing the news of a changing world—and how they must change with it. Readers see Frank’s response to many epochal events, with the most harrowing on September 11, 2001: “these are the lengths we’re going to have to go to. You get it?”

Takeaway: A novel in stories tracing the life of a “cleanskin” IRA bomber and a half century of fractious history.

Comparable Titles: Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man, Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home.

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