I have to preface my thoughts on Brian McGilloway’s latest novel, The Last Crossing, by saying that I knew Brian in his twenties, during that part of Northern Irish history that half this book is set in. We were in university together during the early nineties, in Belfast, during the Troubles. Both Catholic, but from different sides of the border, we were both living—I felt—adjacent to the conflict and terror; surrounded by it, subject to it, but still some ways apart from it. We had just enough privilege—though we wouldn’t have recognised the term or idea at the time—to shield us. We acknowledged it, accommodated it, discussed it, hated it, grieved it, owned it in our way…but we were a step from it. A lucky beat out of step with it, maybe. So, it’s an uncanny experience, all these years later, to read a story that feels so much like our shared past, with a central character who possesses so many of my own friend’s characteristics, told from within those terrors, rather than from the step beyond that I remember us occupying. It’s a sobering insight into who we could have been. And it shows me, personally, just how much more in step with the world we were living in my friend was than I.
Tony, a middle-aged widower and former English teacher from Northern Ireland, is literally travelling back to the darkest moment of his youth, as he and two others—his former lover and the man who recruited him into the IRA in his twenties—return to the site where they executed and buried a man in Scotland. Products of the Troubles, theirs is a familiar story of disenfranchisement and revenge. Fleeing grief and social strife at home, they found the ‘war’ they’d been fighting going on on the UK mainland just as it was in Ulster, and the demons they were running from waiting for them to arrive.
The story moves between the excruciating return trip itself in the present, first by ferry and then by car, to the woods where the crime was committed, and thirty years into the past, to the months that lead up to the killing. It’s a claustrophobic and uncomfortable journey in both timeframes. Hurt is piled on hurt, and more and more wounds are delivered as the story progresses, big and small. It sounds like it would be a very tough read, but this is a story about how horror runs parallel to the familiar, the everyday, and the beautiful, and you are easily carried along, sure that the good you can otherwise see in Tony—and Karen, his girlfriend and compatriot—must eventually lead to some kind of justice, some restitution, some ultimate righteousness in the face of what the Troubles wrought. But this isn’t a story about justice. This is a story, ultimately, about how we all share our pains, how we pass them on and pay them forward, and how little is left of us when we’re all complicit in each other’s deaths. It is a bleak story, but it reflects the particular pains of a generation, many generations, in fact, and the fears we still hold onto that there are more generations of the same to come. It is told, however, with so much sensitivity and humanity, and is so compelling, that it doesn’t leave you cold at the end, battered and bruised though you may be. Having lived in these times and in these places, it was a deeply personal book for me; made more so by my memories from that time of the author himself. If you too have any kind of relationship with this part of history, this book is a must. But if you don’t, there’s a clear thread to this story that suggests you might need it even more.
An absolutely stunning novel, I cannot recommend it enough. And I am so proud of my friend for writing it.