book review: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe



Doubleday, February 26, 2019


I wish it weren’t only February because the statement ‘this is the best book I’ve read all year’ does not carry very much weight when we still have 10 months to go. But, nonetheless, this is my reigning book of 2019. And it ended up being one of those rare cases when the book turned out so differently from what I expected, but I ended up liking it all the more for that. From the blurb I got the impression that this was going to focus on the disappearance of a woman called Jean McConville, with details about the Troubles setting the background context, but instead it’s primarily a narrative account of the Troubles which occasionally, haltingly zeroes in on McConville’s story. So it’s less true crime than it is historical nonfiction, but the final product is focused and compelling.

Say Nothing, whose title comes from a line from a Seamus Heaney poem which examines the treacherous precedent of speaking plainly about the Troubles, paints a comprehensive picture of twentieth century Belfast and introduces us to a few of the main players responsible for much of the devastation caused by the IRA – Brendan Hughes, Gerry Adams, Dolours and Marian Price, et al. Radden Keefe explores the lives and family histories and philosophies and interpersonal dynamics of these individuals and I found it refreshing that he didn’t have an interest in moralizing in his approach to this story; while I think true objectivity is probably impossible, this is about as multifaceted as it gets. Driven primarily by an interest in the human cost of the conflict, Radden Keefe turns four years of research into a richly detailed account of Northern Ireland’s fraught history, particularly examining how difficult it is to cultivate a historical record when different accounts contain conflicting information, and when everyone is afraid to speak openly about a conflict that’s officially been resolved, but is a strong force in cumulative living memory. (If you loved Milkman, or if you didn’t understand Milkman, this is such a valuable nonfiction supplement.)

Certain anecdotes and images in this book were just arresting, and I think it’s telling that the two stories that affected me the most had victims on opposite sides of the conflict. The first was about an IRA man who ordered a hit on another IRA man, whose wife he was having an affair with; the first man was sentenced to death, and Dolours Price, driving him to his execution, was struck with the thought that she could let him go, or that he could attack her and escape, but neither of those possibilities was going to happen because they both wholly accepted their devotion to the cause. The chapter ends with the flat and haunting lines “‘I’ll be seeing you Joe,’ Price said. But she knew that she wouldn’t be, and she cried the whole way home.” The second story that got under my skin was about two young British soldiers who had accidentally found themselves in the middle of an IRA funeral; because of a recent attack by loyalists, their presence was met with suspicion and they were dragged from their car and beaten, and eventually taken across the road and shot. A Catholic priest ran over and when he noticed that one of the men was still breathing, asked if anyone knew CPR, but he was met with silence from the crowd, and a photograph was captured of him kneeling over this soldier’s body and staring into the camera, his lips bloody from trying to resuscitate him.

As for the significance of Jean McConville, the mother of ten who went missing in 1972, and whose body wasn’t recovered until her bones were found on a beach in 2003: at first I did worry that this element was being shoehorned as a bizarre piece of human interest (I say ‘bizarre’ due to the little attention that’s paid to McConville and her children throughout). However, I needn’t have worried, as everything does eventually dovetail in a way that fully justifies this book’s premise. Running alongside the historical account of the Troubles, Radden Keefe introduces the reader to something called the Boston College Tapes, an aborted project in which heads of the college’s Irish History department endeavored to curate an oral history of the Troubles, to be accessed by the college’s students in future generations. Due to the fact that discussing past paramilitary activity is an incriminating act, participants in the project were granted a sort of amnesty and promised that the tapes would not be released until after the participant’s death. This promise was violated in the form of a lengthy legal battle between BC and the UK government, and ended up playing a key role in getting to the bottom of McConville’s disappearance.

While I’d first and foremost recommend Say Nothing to those with an interest in Irish history and wouldn’t dream of selling this as a true crime book, I don’t want to downplay how enthralling this was. Granted, its focus is something I already had an interest in, but what Radden Keefe brought to this narrative was a fiercely human angle, and I found this as deeply moving as it was informative.

Thank you to Netgalley and Doubleday for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of Say Nothing here on Book Depository.


29 thoughts on “book review: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

    • Thank you! I don’t consider myself totally ignorant about the Troubles but it still helped contextualize a LOT from Milkman that I hadn’t even realized needed contextualization for me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s so interesting to hear – I knew you were from NI so I was curious about your own experiences while I was reading. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to grow up during such a turbulent period in your country. The story of Jean McConville was just so sad, being a single mother of ten children who never seem to have fully recovered from that tragedy.


  1. It sounds incredible and very disturbing – the fact that it would make a good supplementary resource for people who liked Milkman is enough to convince me it’s worth reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! Among other things it really contextualizes Burns’ decision to have everyone in Milkman be nameless. Not that Burns didn’t do a good job of establishing the atmosphere of 1970s Belfast, but this just corroborates and supplements Burns’ own account so well that I’m glad to have read them both not too far from one another.


      • One of the things I like so much about Burns’s approach is exactly that lack of interest in contextualizing for a “foreign” (i.e. non-Northern Irish) audience; part of the effect of Milkman is that you work out the nature of the society Burns is describing *as you read*. She’s world-building without exposition, in a way that reminded me a lot of some of my favourite science fiction novels, where you work out the local political system or cult or whatever as you go. Which is brilliant in fiction but means that supplementary nonfiction is often really handy (not least because, particularly in Milkman, some of the stuff she describes is so astonishing/horrendous/oppressive/scary that it’s good to be reminded of the fact that she’s not making those bits up at all.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yesssss this is so good, I could not agree more. The atmosphere she created in that book was PALPABLE, I truly felt like I was a part of that community, I felt all the anxiety and paranoia and terror. And I mean, I’d consumed other media over the years that depicted the Troubles so it’s not like I went in totally blind, but Milkman was the first that I found genuinely eye-opening in the sense that it forced me to stop thinking about this conflict from my comfortable life in America and actually consider what it must have been like growing up in NI in the 70s. I think that’s partially why Say Nothing hit me so hard on an emotional level – Irish ancestry aside I don’t have a personal stake in the material, but Milkman brought a level of immediacy to it that I haven’t been able to shake.


  2. This sounds excellent. I know so little about the history of the Troubles, but I’ve been growing more and more interested in learning about it. (There was a time when I was obsessed with Irish history, back when I studied abroad there in my sophomore year of college, but even then we didn’t discuss the Troubles much). Really love your review – it’s so detailed and captures everything about this book that makes me really want to pick it up!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really think you would love this!!! It is SO informative and it’s a brilliant sort of ‘the Troubles 101’ book (I feel like this was written primarily for American audiences) without feeling dumbed down. Now that you mention that I do remember you being interested in Irish history, that’s funny that we have that overlap because we’ve never really discussed it! But yes, this is such a fascinating period and I get why it isn’t more widely taught, first because it’s so recent and second because there’s a strange dearth of primary sources, but I’d love to read some more books like this to get as full of a picture as possible. Also thank you!!!


    • Oh that makes me so happy! Yay! I’m in the same boat – read a TON of Irish fiction and have an ok sense of historical context through these works, but I’m still a bit lacking in the nonfiction department. Really hope you enjoy this, but I’m sure you will!


      • I’m planning on writing up my thoughts later in the month, but I loved it! The dark humor was brilliant, and I enjoyed how distinct the narrative voice was. It was a difficult read, but it’s been one of my favorite books of 2019 so far.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh wonderful! It ended up being my favorite book of 2018. Totally agreed about the dark humor and the voice, it just made for such an immersive and hard-hitting read. Looking forward to your review 👍

        Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Hands down, no competition, Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, one of the most informative and engaging pieces of nonfiction I’ve read in years, which masterfully contextualizes the Troubles and fills in so many gaps that Keefe’s primarily American audience is bound to need filling in.  I can’t recommend this highly enough.  Review here. […]


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