Divorcing Jack, by Colin Bateman (“Bateman”)

I picked this up at a Brussels literary event last year, at which Bateman himself spoke and autographed a couple of his works for me. I had previously read a couple of his thrillers set in Belfast, usually involving struggling journalists who get into political and criminal difficulties, though I don’t think I had looked at any of them this century. Divorcing Jack is more political, but it is a slightly different politics to our time line, set in an alternate 1995 where the Alliance Party is about to win the elections and take power. (I read this bit with particular interest because in our timeline, the real Alliance Party’s central Director of Elections in 1995 was, er, me; and we were struggling to hit the 6.5% we got in 1996, never mind win outright. A significant subplot revolves around the party’s candidate for North Belfast, who in 1995-96, in our timeline, was, again, me; but Bateman’s fictional McGarry had a much more successful political career than I did.)

As with the other Bateman novels I’ve read, the narrator is a journalist down on his luck. Here, his marriage is on the rocks, two other women appear on the scene, and he unleashes a criminal scandal which threatens to rock the political world to its foundations. Bateman’s Northern Ireland is a small world. There is only one taxi driver in the whole of Belfast, apparently. The least credible element of this alternate Northern Ireland is that everyone at the top level of politics has known each other practically from childhood, and that the battles of young love are still being fought a decade or two later, along with all the other political battles. I do actually know of a couple of countries where this is a decent explanation of a lot of the political dynamics; but Northern Ireland, given its internal division and also relative permeability to outside influences, is not one of them.

But I’m far enough away in time and (usually) space to appreciate that not every detail of the fictional politics of Bateman’s Northern Ireland needs to be convincing to make it an entertaining book; and it is an entertaining book – in particular, he catches the caustic Belfast wit very well, also showing how it can link to a cynical worldview where scepticism even of the apparently heroic is always justified. It’s not a terribly attractive approach, but at least it means that, by assuming the worst in advance, you are more likely to get pleasant surprises than unpleasant surprises.

It’s also striking, to a visitor from the 21st century, how much the plot of this book set in 1995 depends on old technology – the McGuffin is a cassette tape of which there is only one copynobody has a mobile phone.

Anyway, it’s of its time, but it brought me back to places which were very important to me once, and showed them to me from a different angle and in a different light. I don’t know how well it would be received outside Northern Ireland – the humour is very local – and I’m not even sure how well it was received here – rather too close to the bone in some cases. But I liked it.

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