As the best of 2019 lists began rolling out, Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe was in everyone’s best books of the year lists. I had seen the advanced reader’s copy on our shelf in the library workroom a few months before it was published, but by the size of the tome (nearly 500 pages) and the description, it sounded to me like another true crime book influenced by the popularity of the Serial Podcast. I left it on the shelf and didn’t read it. Then, a good friend recommended Say Nothing and the same day President Obama released his best reads of 2019 and it was on his list, so I checked it out on Libby. 2020, therefore, was off to a barn-burning start: Say Nothing is a deeply thoughtful examination of the violent traumas of colonialism and sectarianism in even the most modern communities.
From the book jacket, you might think Say Nothing is the investigation into the murder of an Irish widow during the height of The Troubles. Jean McConville’s disappearance and subsequent murder, however, is merely the device by which Radden takes his reader’s hand. Then, gently—in a lilting Irish accent—he leads them into the incredibly complex and tribal world of this labyrinthine war. Radden is immensely thorough in his research but the book is overwhelming only in so much as the ghastly futility of war is, at its core, unbearable. Say Nothing goes beyond a mere examination of the facts of the tumultuous events surrounding Irish independence. Radden responsibly lays bare the human narratives, allowing readers the chance, for the briefest moment, to experience the war on a human, rather than political, level. The way that Radden is able to contextualize the experiences of the people who were (and are) key players in this war is astounding. The best non-fiction often reads like a novel, and Say Nothing is no exception. Reading this book felt to me like reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien: I had been granted some new understanding and clarity about what it means to be at war, whether solider or civilian, simply from having read the book.
While The Troubles may seem solely an Irish problem on the surface, Say Nothing shows that this relatively small community is an exemplar case study of the impacts of urban warfare and protracted sectarian strife on the global scale. Likewise, the book is a cautionary tale as we move forward into a new era where Brexit is on the horizon and the tremulous peace in Northern Ireland is put into jeopardy.
I recommend this book to everyone, but especially those who enjoy true crime, political books, books about history, those readers who are interested in learning more about complicated issues, war memoirs, and Ireland. If you liked Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, the second season of Serial Podcast, or investigative journalism generally, you’ll like this book.