The Abstainer by Ian McGuire

1. First lines. 2. Published 2020 Penguin Random House; Simon & Schuster 3. Charles Brett [Public Domain] via Wikimedia 4. Fenian raid volunteers [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr (The image has been cropped.)

The two main characters are Stephen Doyle and James O’Connor. Doyle is an Irish-American Fenian who has arrived in Manchester to aid the Brotherhood in getting revenge for the hangings of three members of the Brotherhood. Police in Manchester are on high alert, expecting reprisals from Fenians. O’Connor is a policeman sent from Ireland for a new start and is intent on stopping further violence, as he trails Doyle and uses spies to get information.


“Doyle leans his head back into the corner of the cab and closes his eyes to rest. He has no fears of what the night might bring. He learned in the war that the hoping and the worrying are beside the point, that there is a chaos at the heart of things – dark, unfathomable – and the best a man can do is give that chaos human form, match himself to it. In the heat of the battle, he knows, the mind empties and you forget who you are.”

“There aren’t enough men willing to fight and die for it. If we want to win, we have to hurt the English in their homes. Scare them enough so they can’t sleep at night and are forever looking over their shoulders in case an Irishman appears with a bomb or a gun in his hand.”

My opinion:

A thrilling read with as much suspense as needed to keep the pages turning. I wasn’t expecting a fairy tale ending, but I still felt let down with the unconventional ending that seemed rushed, compared to the rest of the story.

The opinion of others:
  • The Guardian: “A gripping revenge thriller from the author of The North Water about the 19th-century struggle between Manchester police and Irish nationalists”
  • Kirkus: “This well-told, suspenseful tale will appeal to fans of Deadwood and Cormac McCarthy.”
  • New York Journal of Books: “The Abstainer is a page turner. It begins with a dramatic real event, the hanging of three Fenian agitators, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, in Manchester, England, in 1867. The plot unfolds at a thrilling pace. “
  • Publishers Weekly: “McGuire’s crackling work is one to savor.”
Other edition:
Historical note:

In 1867, three Fenians (members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood) were hanged for the murder of a police officer (Charles Brett) in Manchester. This is the background for this historical fiction.

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