This wonderfully-crafted novel addresses the surreal contrast between the warring factions in 1979 Belfast, Catholics battered by years of violence in the name of the cause, the Brits reacting with determined force, barging into rebel homes in search of contraband. All is writ in the language of occupation, one side fighting for a united Ireland, the other imposing English law, families caught in the middle, their loyalty unassailable, their children learning of war instead of the easy camaraderie of childhood. Sean Moran has been arrested in the death of an English soldier, sent to Belfast's Maze Prison, where he "takes the blanket", joining a group of rebels who refuse to wear prison clothing and paint the walls of their cells with excrement.
Kate Moran is reeling from her oldest son's incarceration, the entire family charged with anxiety as British soldiers rampage through their home searching for weapons. Kate's husband, the senior Sean, continues to hide in the comfort of the bottle, rehashing his old war stories, proud that his son is a soldier for the cause. In contrast to this family caught in the grinding jaws of cycling violence, Englishman John Dunn reports daily to the Maze, plodding through foul-smelling shifts where the other guards survive by fortifying themselves with drink. Stunned by the cavalier brutality and lack of discipline around him, John is carefully watched by his fellow guards for weakness or signs of empathy with the enemy, working long, depressing hours, his home life suffering from lack of attention. An "us or them" mentality prevails, the Maze a black hole of bare subsistence, the incarcerated rebels determined to change their status from criminals to prisoners of war.
The result is pure bedlam, the beliefs of each faction polarizing and demeaning to all, the guards lurking in the same filthy hell as their prisoners: "The moment you've put on that uniform on, you are a target." Finally, For Dunn, hope appears in the person of his son Mark, born of a casual acquaintance years earlier. It is John's connection with this young man that pulls him from the depressing tedium of his job, offering an opportunity to experience the rewards of fatherhood. Against an implacable foe with no end in sight, the Moran's play out their drama, trapped by the circumstances of time and place. Simultaneously, John Dunn lives his personal nightmare as a prison guard, his life threatened, family dynamic in constant flux.
Through the two households, Dean explores the effects of long-term conflict and the damage done to the social fabric of a warring city, each side locked into preordained battle lines. It is the inevitability of violence that defines Belfast in 1979, with no room for negotiation, the citizens traumatized by a harsh existence with few rewards. The contrast between the two sides is striking, immutable, a long struggle cast in black and white. The crux: "You can't change anyone's mind by killing them." The essence of this dilemma is beautifully captured in the characters that people this powerful novel, a human season, "this springtime of hatred." Luan Gaines/2007.