In 1867 Manchester, the hangings of three Irishman have the city on edge. The rebels of the Fenian brotherhood have sworn revenge, and to put it in motion they’ve imported a hired gun from America. Stephen Doyle is an Irish-born veteran of the U.S. Civil War, having escaped abuse and overwork on his uncle’s farm. He’s a hard, unforgiving man committed to the cause of Irish freedom and unafraid to use violent means to achieve it.
The Abstainer of the title is James O’Connor, an Irish cop transferred to Manchester and tasked with rooting out the underground rebels using paid informants. He’s trying to put his life back together after the death of his wife sent him spiraling into drunkenness. He’s a man without a country, as few of the other cops respect him because he is Irish, while the Irish think of him as a traitor for working with the English.
Doyle’s first goal upon arrival in Manchester is to eliminate all the spies within the brotherhood, a task he pursues with ruthless efficiency. From then on, he and O’Connor are locked in opposition, with the stakes only rising when O’Connor’s ne’er-do-well nephew gets involved, joining the Fenians in order to sell them out to his uncle.
McGuire writes excellent prose and is a whiz at establishing setting and mood. The novel feels as though it could have been written in the 19th century. O’Connor and Doyle are both tricky characters to write, being strong silent types, but McGuire does an admirable job there as well. The plotting, though, could use some work. After a sustained period of escalating stakes, McGuire takes a bizarre turn in the third-act, slowing down the tempo to a crawl as the inevitable confrontation looms. As for the ending itself, it’s a daring choice and sure to be divisive. It’s intensely dire and unsatisfactory, a fascinating but confusing artistic choice. McGuire seems to be an author who enjoys provoking thoughts rather than providing readers with answers.