In September of 1983, 38 Irish Republican Army inmates carried out a brazen escape from the maximum-security Maze prison near Belfast, creating shockwaves throughout the U.K. and Northern Ireland. Most had been convicted of murder or possession of explosives, and were unquestioningly described in the press as terrorists.
This suspenseful and impressively well-researched fictionalized account of the Great Escape from Long Kesh (as the Maze was known locally) never uses that word. As a look at the men and women involved in "the Troubles," it does pose questions about the dividing lines that are so often and so heavily drawn between people.
Patrick Taylor himself was born and received his medical training in Northern Ireland, but after sectarian violence began in 1969, he and his family moved to Canada. Here he taught medicine (at the University of Manitoba for a time), and published a wide body of research literature. He now lives in British Columbia.
Now and in the Hour of Our Death is the continuation of Taylor's novel Pray for Us Sinners (both titles refer to lines in the Roman Catholic prayer Hail Mary), in which readers meet Davy McCutcheon, a 40-ish IRA bomb-maker who becomes disillusioned with the cause. Fiona Kavanagh, the pacifist elementary school teacher he lives with and abidingly loves, has forced him to choose between her and his vow to help banish the British from Northern Ireland.
At the outset of this second novel, Davy is nine years into a 40-year sentence at Long Kesh and Fiona has moved to Vancouver. Davy decides to join the prison break in the hope of joining Fiona, and is pressured again to commit the violence he has turned his back on.
It isn't necessary to read the books in order, but reading the first one afterwards will lessen its suspense. Its main plot lines are summarized, perhaps once or twice too often, in the second.
Hard-hitting and gritty, these two "Troubles" novels appeared prior to Taylor's bestselling Irish Country series, light-hearted fiction about a rural Irish medical practice in the early '60s. These earlier works are now being reissued.
What the author excels at is drawing out the story for maximum effect. He repeatedly builds tension during the escape and its aftermath, then abruptly turns his attentions for a while to simultaneous events.
Cal and Erin, a brother-and-sister unit of the Provisional IRA, prepare a hiding place for the fugitives near their farm. Their desperately trapped hired hand, Sammy, is only helping the cause because of his love for the unattainable Erin.
The novel's characters are fascinating, and it's Sammy who comes closest to taking on the flesh and blood found in other classic books about the Troubles, such as Leon Uris's Trinity or Bernard Maclaverty's Cal.
Meanwhile, Fiona's peaceful but ordinary life in Vancouver appears idyllic in comparison, a point that cannot be overstated.
Whether Fiona and Davy ever meet again is for the reader to discover; Taylor's point is that the ordinariness of a good life and love can conquer hate.
Ursula Fuchs is a registered nurse in Winnipeg.