Book Review: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Say Nothing – Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday, 2019)

Patrick Radden Keefe’s delve into the history of the Irish Troubles is immensely readable and formative. This isn’t a topic that particularly grabs my attention and as such is one I know very little about. I can recall, as a child, hearing about Ireland or seeing snippets in the news but it wasn’t much on my radar and perhaps even less so as an adult. I have, however, read a few novels from Irish authors in recent years and it’s clear that the history of the Troubles is at the heart of a lot of Irish literature, whether or not it’s a large part of the plot. (A book like Anna Burns’ Milkman definitely comes to mind.) Say Nothing is a book that kept appearing on lists by other book bloggers and seemed to be receiving rave reviews across the board so when I saw that it was available at my local library I decided to give it a go.

Keefe centres his story around the disappearance of Jean McConville. A thirty-something widow with numerous children, she seems like a minor character, not someone who would have much influence in a political struggle. But one night she is taken from her home, in front of her children, and never heard from again. There is no body, nothing to provide closure to her loved ones.

Along with the story of Jean and her children, Keefe weaves in the history of the political struggles of Ireland. He does so in a very informative but fascinating way, introducing such polarizing figures as Dolours Price and Gerry Adams. The book covers decades of Irish history, bringing us up to the very present day. It never bogs down in details or left me feeling confused. This is honestly my favourite way to learn about something, through a narrative non-fiction like this.

If this were a novel, we would have been provided with a neater ending. Since this is real life, Keefe outlines the details that are known but it’s easy to see that there is plenty to still be revealed in the future. Many of the people featured in the book are still alive; this is very recent history, and there are stories that will not be made public until after their deaths’.

If you’re a fan of true crime, you want to learn more about Ireland in the 20th century, or you’re simply a reader who enjoys an excellent narrative non-fiction, I can highly recommend Say Nothing.

17 thoughts on “Book Review: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe”

  1. Great review! I’m aiming for this to be one of my first nonfiction reads of he new year and your response makes me all the more excited to get to it. I’m fairly uninformed about The Troubles myself but like you have been interested in the literary responses to it, so I think a book like this will give me the context I need. Very glad to see it’s not too dense or confusing!

    1. It’s really not and he does a great job of not assuming the reader knows any of the background info. You can go into it quite blind and learn a lot. I hope you enjoy it!

  2. The most I’ve learned about The Troubles is from the Netflix show Derry Girls, which, omg, Derry Girls. I love all five of the main characters because I totally know those girls. Those are my girls.

    1. Is that good? I’ve seen clips here and there and it looks fun. Everything I know about The Troubles is really from books, so it’s been very haphazard, which made this book all the more interesting.

    2. Oh, yeah. This show totally took me back to high school in a good way. And the best praise I can give Derry Girls is that there are four girls in the group, and it is impossible to choose a favorite.

  3. Sounds good. Did he take a side or try to remain impartial? I reckon most Brits who lived through The Troubles probably still have quite strong feelings about who were the baddies despite all attempts to rehabilitate them in recent decades. But most (southern) Irish probably see it differently. The very name Gerry Adams brings on my most visceral hatred – I don’t usually hate people but for him I make an exception…

    1. He’s pretty neutral and not very present for most of the book, though he sort of introduces himself toward the end. That said, it did feel like there was some sympathy in certain directions and toward certain people. I would say he’s quite sympathetic toward Jean McConville and her children. But there is also quite a bit of sympathy toward Dolours Price and her sister. I’d never heard of Gerry Adams before and I think Keefe tries to present him as neutrally as possible. But even just stating facts and direct quotes, Adams comes out as the closest thing the book has to a villain, I think. It is not hard to see why people would hate him.

    2. It’s still such a raw wound it would be difficult to tackle it in a completely unbiased manner, I’d think, so it sounds like he’s done as good a job as possible. I don’t think I could read it though – at the time I had little sympathy with either side, though the IRA were by far the worst of the two. My sister lived in London when there were regular bombings down there, and having to wait every time for her to phone and let us know she was OK is one memory I’d rather not have. Did he mention the Women’s Peace Movement? They were my heroes at the time.

    3. Oh wow, that would definitely affect how you’d feel. He tries to explain the IRA rationale behind their bombings but it’s hard to sympathize when it’s clear innocent civilians were always going to be involved. He never mentions the Women’s Peace Movement. I will have to look that up.

  4. I feel so out of the loop because I’ve never heard of this book! It does sound interesting though, like you, this is my favourite way of learning about a piece of history/a famous figure/ etc. I seem to retain enough info about it to recall later, which is half the battle these days haha

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