Sunday, September 10, 2017

Book Review: 'Those We Left Behind' by Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville's "Those We Left Behind" is set in Belfast. In March 2007, a pair of brothers, Thomas Devine, fourteen, and Ciaran, twelve, are found with blood on their hands near the battered corpse of their foster father. Which of the boys killed David Rolston and why? Detective Sergeant Serena Flanagan tries to elicit the truth from Ciaran, who is quieter and more sensitive than Thomas. Ciaran, with "hollow eyes and blank face," insists that he committed the murder by himself. Serena has her doubts, but the boys are subsequently locked up and released at the end of their sentences. Ciaran is nineteen when he is transferred to a hostel, where he will be closely supervised. Meanwhile, the victim's son, Daniel Rolston, is obsessed with making Thomas and Ciaran pay for their senseless crime; losing his father destroyed his and his mother's lives.

This is an intense and violent thriller in which Neville examines the twisted psyches of two siblings who are incapable of empathy. Thomas and Ciaran are so thoroughly damaged that they are doomed to exist on the fringes of society. Serena Flanagan, now a forty-five year old Detective Chief Inspector, and Paula Cunningham, Ciaran's parole officer and a clinical psychologist, learn to their woe that trying to help Ciaran may not only be impossible but also dangerous. Neville goes back and forth from 2007 to the present day. He also switches from the past to the present tense when recounting events from Ciaran's distorted perspective. In addition to dealing with the Devines, Serena and Paula both face troubling personal issues; Serena has health concerns and Paula, whose only companion is her dog, has been anesthetizing herself with alcohol since her partner ended their relationship.

"Those We Left Behind" is a bleak, riveting, and unflinching look at the selfish and destructive decisions that people make. Daniel, Serena, and Paula--decent human beings who want to do the right thing--let their emotions rule their actions. This is rarely a good idea. Neville's vividly portrayed characters include a manipulative sociopath and sadist; a weak-willed man-child; and a driven female detective, Serena Flanagan. Serena is intelligent, dedicated, and insightful, but also impulsive, hot-tempered, and insolent to her superiors. No one in these pages is able to accept the hand that he or she is dealt. Expect no comic relief, easygoing camaraderie, or uplifting resolution. What Stuart Neville delivers is a harsh and unrelenting tale about a horrific act of violence that resonates far into the future.

Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right