In her superb 2009 book The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, Caroline Alexander reminds us that Homer’s epic poem, composed around 750 or 700 B.C., immortalized a conflict that “established no boundaries, won no territory, and furthered no cause.” That legendary clash between Greek and Trojan armies is thought to have occurred around 1250 BC, but Alexander’s reflection on war’s futility transcends time. It also infuses Country by Michael Hughes, a daring new novel set on bloody ground where clear distinctions — between enemy and foe, ancient and modern – easily dissolve. “When you hear some of the stories, you can see plain that the old times were not a bit different than today,” the narrator insists. And Hughes, armed with wit and cunning, dramatizes that belief by transplanting the Iliad from Troy to Northern Ireland and reviving a tragedy sparked, now as then, by the “small personal matter” of a stolen woman.
In 1996, a commander in the paramilitary Irish Republican Army lures away the teenage daughter of a rich Protestant farmer who then calls in political favors to have the IRA man’s hideout besieged. No water, no phone, no propane, no cigarettes, and soon “the boys were at the end of their rope. Time to call off the job and get out of this forsaken shithole, steal away to America to disappear for good.” (The “job” is a bombing planned to derail the temporary ceasefire between IRA and British forces). Tempers flare and a row ignites between the IRA commander, nicknamed Pig, and his finest sniper, Achill, who has secretly summoned a Catholic priest to facilitate the errant girl’s return. “Priests never bring good news,” Pig roars at the quaking cleric, “The Catholic Church is a blight on the Irish people, worse than the fucking Brits!” He agrees, however, to send the girl home, but announces that he will take Achill’s woman, Brigid, in exchange. The tension rises. “Nobody moved a muscle. Nobody took a breath… All knew the two of them were carrying. This might go any way at all.” No, not really. It must go as it did millennia before. Achill, the insubordinate hero, denounces his commander, (“How is any soldier of Ireland meant to take orders from a self-centred ignorant fat coward like you?”), withdraws from a fight he deems not worth the sacrifice of his life or anyone’s life, only to be drawn back to violence by the murder of Pat, his beloved young protégé.
Readers familiar with the Iliad, whether charmed or peeved by Country, will surely admire Hughes’s dexterous grafting of the sordid present onto the fabled past. In the novel’s blistering opening scene, for example, he manages to conjure up the speech and landscape of rural Northern Ireland in pungent detail; to introduce characters as distinct from each other as they are close to their ancient counterparts; and to set in motion a plot already spring-loaded with betrayal. “The wife left you, isn’t that right, Dog?” Achill taunts Pig’s brother, “Just upped and away. And the word is she’s been screwing a Brit.” Achill is referring to beautiful Helena, of course, an IRA wife turned informer who absconds to England, seduces her British handler and has some of the novel’s best lines, even during sex. “He took his time. Kept asking her if it was okay. She told him she didn’t want the football commentary.” Along with Theresa, the novel’s other female intelligence agent, Helena is an essential player in the novel’s high-stakes game of double-cross, a contest in which the only winners are those calling the shots from on high: the gods or, in this case, British politicians. As the anonymous narrator observes, this atrocious drama is destined to play out “The way London wanted it to go. The way it always is.”
The retelling of any ancient tale – in the Myths Series by Canongate, for example, which features Sally Vickers’s masterpiece Where Three Roads Meet (2007) –is an irresistible jigsaw puzzle. And part of the appeal of Country is indeed the recognition game that the reader plays not only with Hughes’s characters – matching Achill with Achilles, Pat with Patrokolos, Pig with Agamemnon, Dog with Menelaus and so on – but also with famous scenes such as the killing of Hektor, the pleading for his body and the funeral games for Pat. Though some of those episodes, particularly towards the end of the novel, are a little strained. The chariot race staged with automobiles, for example, seems more like a Monty Python sketch than a thrilling catharsis. But moments that verge on parody are rare in a novel that first seizes our attention with its theatrical boldness and then holds us captive in a small place where “Death looks like glory to a young man” but where Achill, recalling his victims, sees only, “Tiny wee men in the crosshairs, dropping when he squeezed his finger.”