Book review: All the Colours of the Town by Liam McIlvanney (Conway Trilogy #1)

all the colours liam mcilvanneyAfter reading and loving Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker last year, I was eager to try his earlier novels. As Brexit highlights how little many British people know about Northern Ireland (not least the Secretary of State), it seemed a good time to read a book that explores its recent history and the legacy of the Troubles.

In All the Colours of the Town, Glasgow political journalist Gerry Conway is given a tip-off that the Scottish Justice Minister, Peter Lyons, has a past involvement with Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.

This puts Conway in a difficult position. On the one hand, he needs a big story. In a declining newspaper market, his paper has undergone reorganisation and one of his rivals is heading up an investigations unit producing far more front pages than him. On the other, Lyons is his best contact, carefully cultivated and almost a friend. Conway nonetheless decides to pursue the story – at great cost.

I have conflicting feelings about this book. McIlvanney writes beautifully. He can imbue a hotel room, an office toilet, the afternoon lull in a pub, with a bleak poetry – but just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. He describes everything. It does disguise the fact that there is not too much going on here. The plot moves slowly and is wrapped up at the end with a great chunk of exposition.

Another thing that bugs me is that the only women in the novel are sexual partners or victims. I noticed the same thing in The Quaker but put it down to the period – late sixties – and to the fact that it is in a way a book about masculinity and tribalism. Here, in a contemporary novel – it was published in 2009 – there doesn’t seem to be any such excuse.

However, the book has other strengths. McIlvanney is great in evoking place. He shows the Glasgow of the tight-knit Scottish establishment and its interplay with a Scottish Parliament just coming out of its honeymoon period. He highlights the close connections between sectarian groups in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the tacit co-operation and the trade-offs.

McIlvanney draws a vivid picture of Belfast after the Good Friday agreement and contrasts it with Conways’s memories of what went before. It shows a city transformed, but also highlights those who are still grieving. And while peace is welcomed by most, it is lamented by a few formerly influential figures who find they have lost their purpose – and their livelihood.

If you like literary fiction with a bit of suspense, or crime fiction with a strong prose style, then this is worth a read, but for me, The Quaker is a much stronger novel.

View All the Colours of the Town on Goodreads

Want to know more? This Twitter thread by comedian Patrick Kielty provides a great insight into the impact of the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland and the threat posed by Brexit.


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