THOMAS PAUL BURGESS
THOMAS PAUL BURGESS
WHITE CHURCH, BLACK MOUNTAIN
What links a traumatic childhood secret with the murder of a high-ranking police officer and two young men facing terrorist death threats?
In Belfast, Northern Ireland, the fragile Peace Process is still haunted by the crimes of the past. Truth and justice have become the currency through which victim and terrorist alike must purchase their closure regarding the conflict...
When Detective Inspector Dan Watson of the Historical Enquiries Team enters an interview room for a routine consultation, he is astonished by the recognition of an eerily familiar face – Eban Barnard, the younger brother of his late partner and mentor Detective Superintendent Alex, who was brutally assassinated by the Provisional IRA twenty years earlier. What Dan learns in that room defies credulity and threatens to open up a Pandora’s Box of secrets that will unhinge the lives of all those involved – and endanger the very peace process itself.
“I killed my own brother... and he deserved what he got.”
Based on actual events, and set against the backdrop of a society’s hunger for redemptive catharsis, White Church, Black Mountain is a tightly-constructed, fast-paced novel that follows the dysfunctional life of the misanthropic Eban as he traverses a generation of secrets and lies. Unlike many of the novels about ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland, White Church, Black Mountain is at the forefront of an emerging ‘post-conflict’ canon, considering the legacy of the conflict as it impacts upon those who seek to build a future in its aftermath. Exploring a panoply of themes – including prejudice, corruption, retribution and abiding grace – it will by enjoyed by fans of political thrillers. It can be read in conjunction with Burgess’ latest academic work, The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants (Palgrave Macmillan).
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‘White Church, Black Mountain just sucks you in. Like Brian Moore given a make-over by James Elroy. Excellent stuff.’
Colin Bateman, Novelist
‘The voice of White Church, Black Mountain is authentic and the story gripping and haunting. Even more striking is the book’s
humanity, for it deals unsparingly with what is so often dismissed contemptuously as ‘collateral damage’ - the ‘little people’ whose
lives are casually destroyed when they are caught up in a brutal war of which they wanted no part.’
Ruth Dudley Edwards, Historian, Novelist, Journalist & Broadcaster
‘Burgess effortlessly makes the transition from punk prophet to fullblown novelist, delivering a compelling account of life in the shadows of Belfast's Black Mountain. An outstanding debut.’
Barry McIlheney, CEO, Professional Publishers Association
‘Paul Burgess segues perfectly between different time zones, from the darkest days of the early 1970s into a jagged, fractured Belfast and on towards the uncertain present of post-Troubles Northern Ireland. The Belfast-Ulster vernacular is more real; the atmosphere conjured up through memories of bad places more authentic; the storyline more believable than a library full of all the other Northern Irish thrillers that have gone before it… until now they have never truly captured the breakdown of this society due to the Troubles. Burgess creates broken and traumatised characters who have emerged from the Northern Ireland conflict as complex but wholly believable figures. They are walking corpses, barely alive, weighed down by the crimes from the recent past.’
Henry McDonald, The Guardian
‘With White Church, Black Mountain Paul Burgess adds another string to his already impressive bow: punk pioneer, academic,
social commentator and now accomplished novelist...Playwrights beware, he’s coming for you next!’
Glenn Patterson, Novelist
'A story full of compassion that counters the usual pigeon-holing of characters while expanding on the pettiness of sectarianism and violence in the name of divided communities.The book works at various levels and will inform and entertain you; however it may also move you and leave you changed. It was a good read over this Easter holiday; but will be read now by others throughout this year with increasing praise and delight. Please join them and give this book the exposure it deserves...'
'A really good first novel by Burgess which echoes his academic studies into the Northern Ireland conflict and, particularly, its aftermath. Well plotted across three time periods in the main character's life the novel examines how the Troubles continue to cast a shadow across life in NI...'
'White Church Black Mountain is a dark and gripping tale of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland and their legacy. Young Eban Barnard witnesses what he thinks is a killing in the Shankill area of Belfast and the fate of him and the other main characters in the book stems from that one horrific incident. Eban carries the guilt of that day with him through life,compounded by another chain of events he sets off as a result. In 2014 he decides to confess to the Historical Enquiries Team, set up to investigate unsolved murders during the troubles, and discovers that there are those who have no wish to have the truth known.
Alongside the main thread of the story is the tale of Eban's housemates; he shares with closet gay Pascal from France, Emily the long-suffering English teacher and Rosemary, a Catholic busybody and all-round harridan. One of the high points of the book is Pascal's "coming out" party, described as his "Babette's Feast” – for those of us old enough to remember Mike Leigh's classic play, "Abigail's Party" it is far more similar to that.
Burgess's characters are very well drawn and mostly flawed, through nature or made that way by life in the times and the place. Burgess shows us that while the Troubles may be over, their legacy for many most certainly isn't and those who held the reins of power then still do now; the titles change but the people don't. Burgess tells of such things as the Paramilitary's drug dealing, the collusion between the Army and the Protestant Paramilitary and the running sore of Kincora which the powers that be will “investigate” – no doubt when the guilty parties are all dead and beyond the reach of the law and public revulsion.
White Church Black Mountain pulls no punches; its characters come alive and it's a book you'll be thinking of for a long time after you've finished. For a debut novel it's no less than awesome and I'd echo other reviewer's comments that it's "a classic”; I really hope it gets the audience it thoroughly deserves. It's confident, packs a punch and while it does at times seem to be a catalogue of misery, the final chapter leaves the reader with the hope of a happy ending.
I'd guess the book is largely allegorical but to explain why would reveal too much and I could well be wrong anyway. Whatever else it is it's a superb read, a great book that deserves to sell well and be recognised for the amazing achievement it is. My book of 2015 so far.'
REVIEW FROM NETGALLEY
“White Church, Black Mountain’ is quite simply a tour-de-force and then some. It’s clear that as a debut novel, this is a painful testimony that was a long time in gestation. (Much like that of the main character, Eban Barnard). It seems to traverse genres; thriller, serious literary fiction, harrowing documentary with (it seems to me) undeniable glimpses of auto-biography.
There have been many novels dealing with the troubled past of Ulster. However, ‘White Church, Black Mountain’ seems to genuinely transcend these with ease. It does so by bridging the past and present in an effortless-if harrowing- journey through the lives of ordinary people whose existence has been blighted, directly or indirectly by the troubles. All victims... even if some of them do not realise this.
As with the re-booted Province itself, maybe enough time had to pass for a book like this to emerge. Burgess has written something important here. Uncompromising, unapologetic, searingly honest, deeply compassionate, it is the kind of novel that comes along once in a very long while. The kind of novel that should be on an ‘A’ Level Literature school syllabus. Most especially in Northern Ireland.
This book may well be the first authentically ‘classic’ work trying to come to terms with a society of post-conflict survivors.”
Perthstar from Amazon 5 Star Review
A Terrible Beauty is Born! Post – Conflict Fiction & Responding Creatively to the Past. Soapbox on ‘Slugger O’Toole’ Current Affairs Blog. 24 April 2015.
We can all think of memorable novels that have had their conceptual and narrative core located within ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
Still more material has been mined through adaptations of autobiographies or memoirs from ‘combatants’ of the conflict. Plots have generally been driven by tense dénouement involving betrayal and counter -betrayal by security forces and terrorists.
Wars don’t end when the fighting stops of course. And there have been a number of more recent crime novels that have sought to place dissidents at the centre of their work. But again, these plot lines tend toward the shoot out or ticking time bomb.
I have always liked Alex Schmid’s  analogy of why context is important: focusing on terrorist groups and cops alone is like focusing on one player in a tennis match, you are going to miss so much more of the dynamics if you only focus on one part of it.
It is perhaps the internal, intra-personal struggles that continue within everyday citizens affected by the conflict – and within those who wrestle with their involvement in questionable acts with dubious justifications – that hold the richest material for crime fiction (and literary fiction) in this context. Indeed the very pacificity of looking on voyeuristically from a safe North Down idyll may also stir some crisis of conscience for an author or character.
Ordinary people whose lives have been rendered extraordinary by the exceptional circumstances that they have lived through. In short, all of us who generationally have had the misfortune to have the conflict define us in some way, however peripheral.
It can be something as oppressive as standing behind police tape in central London in the 1980’s – petrified to open your mouth and reveal your accent – as they clear the area of a suspect device. Or something as seemingly irrelevant as telling the American bloke sat next to you – around the pool whilst on holiday – that you are from Belfast and then mentally preparing for the ‘war baby’ questions and explanations.
That default of popular fiction, the ‘internal monologue’ has never been better served in this regard.
There is a school of thought of course that would seek to bury our heads in the sand. To cite the necessity to’ move on’ not ‘dwell in the past’ put things ‘behind us’. But like it or not, to some degree the conflict has demarcated who we are today.
So representing fictional characters in contemporary, post-conflict, Northern Ireland, takes on a particular challenge for an author. One that is simultaneously (one hopes) compelling but which also carries a ‘duty of care’ to be faithful to the implicit or explicit loss of innocence that we all experienced during those dark days.
And of course any emerging post-conflict canon or genre that explores the legacy of conflict and how it impacts on those who seek to build a future in its aftermath, should also perhaps usefully explore characters drawn from the younger, post conflict generation.
Here is a peer group feasibly uncomfortable with the traditional religio-political stereo-types foisted upon them and refreshingly honest in their opinions based on their own lived experiences.
What has growing up with the spectres of the past meant for them?
In my own novel, ‘White Church, Black Mountain’ the chief protagonist, Eban Barnard, carries with him throughout his life, a secret that has coloured and defined his relationships with others and with his own self-image.
As he and other characters in the novel struggle with the legacy of the past, we learn something of the challenges that they face.
“When they arrived to take him to theatre sometime after that, he was ready.
One of the porters wheeling his trolley spoke of the breaking news story on morning radio.
Of how the Attorney General was talking complete amnesty for all past crimes.
A move that would render all those involved in terrorist and sectarian crime exempt from prosecution.
The porter told the nurse, it was all about “…making peace with the past.”
But where would he find his peace?
He had carried around his guilt and his frustration for a lifetime…and for what?
‘No one cares about the victims…the families…the dead…and those left behind them,’ he thought. ‘Their heartbreak, their long, slow, lonely creep toward the end without their loved ones…’
They were made to feel like the ghosts at the peace.
Expected to keep quiet for the sake of the next generation.
For the sake of a future they couldn’t share in.
An awkward, tragic postscript that belonged to the newsreels.
To be consigned there and forgotten save for empty platitudes and memorial Sundays in draughty churches.”
Flags, Emblems… The Past.
Like Macbeth’s three witches prophesising “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble”, these three seemingly insurmountable challenges continue to disproportionately influence civil society in the Province.
Perhaps contemporary, post-conflict Northern Irish literature can play a cathartic role in steering us out of the cul-de-sacs of the past, where lazy, stereo-typical characterisations can recede in the rear-view mirror of experiences that inform but do not define us.
 Swiss-born Dutch scholar in Terrorism Studies and former Officer-in-Charge of the Terrorism Prevention Branch of the United Nations
Dr Thomas Paul Burgess is Senior Lecturer at the School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork. His new novel ‘White Church, Black Mountain’ is now available. He is also the co-author of ‘The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants‘.