Review: The Abstainer by Ian McGuire

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An Irishman in nineteenth-century England is forced to take sides when his nephew joins the bloody underground movement for independence in this propulsive novel from the acclaimed author of The North Water.

The rebels will be hanged at dawn, and their brotherhood is already plotting revenge.

Stephen Doyle, an Irish-American veteran of the Civil War, arrives in Manchester from New York with a thirst for blood. He has joined the Fenians, a secret society intent on ending British rule in Ireland by any means necessary. Head Constable James O’Connor has fled grief and drink in Dublin for a sober start in Manchester, and connections with his fellow Irishmen are proving to be particularly advantageous in spying on Fenian activity. When a long-lost nephew returns from America and arrives on O’Connor’s doorstep looking for work, O’Connor cannot foresee the way his fragile new life will be imperiled–and how his and Doyle’s fates will be intertwined.

In an epic tale of revenge and obsession, master storyteller Ian McGuire once again transports readers to a time when blood begot blood. Moving from the gritty streets of Manchester to the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, The Abstainer is a searing novel in which two men, motivated by family, honor and revenge, must fight for life and legacy.


This review originally appeared at

In 2016, Ian McGuire made a splash with his novel The North Water because the plot was about finding an attacker who rapes and murders a boy on a whaling ship. This novel is very difficult to read. McGuire’s use of description makes the horror less on the pages as much as it is in the characters. I did not care much for the novel, but I really remembered it. It has been such a strong presence in my head that I was interested in reading McGuire’s follow up, The Abstainer, when it was released late last year. 

The experience with The Abstainer is much different than McGuire’s previous novel, and this is a good thing. The novel starts in Manchester, England in 1867 with the true event of three Irish Republican Brotherhood members being hanged outside of New Bailey Prison for the murder of a Manchester police sergeant. After this, the plot of retaliation by the Brotherhood is all of McGuire’s imagination. He introduces Stephen Doyle, an American Civil War veteran, who’s job is to travel to England, work with the Brotherhood, and get revenge on the police for hanging the three men. The Abstainer refers to Head Constable Jimmy O’Connor, the officer trying to find Doyle and bring down the Brotherhood. He does not drink alcohol due to his past as a grief filled Dublin detective who’s move to Manchester is a chance of salvation. 

After the first few pages, once I got into the rhythm of McGuire’s writing, I was hooked. The story moves fast and everything that happens, from the bloody murders to the secret meetings in the dirty rooms, every page of this just moves fast. McGuire’s language surrounds the reader, and I could almost feel and smell the grime and rot that follows all of these characters. The way that he structures sentences and paragraphs is really something to behold, and I think that this is what really made The North Water stick in my head for all of those years. The talent that he has writing scenes, characters, settings, and plots  makes them unforgettable. 
Unforgettable writing needs to be paired with an unforgettable story. The Abstainer really has a great amount of ideas and a  pretty good plot, but I do not think that it really reinvents the wheel on a police department stopping gang activity novel. I could think of similar stories based on the same premise (the works of Caleb Carr, Richard Price, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane come to mind), but I did like the historical aspect and the execution. The Abstainer is a great historical police procedural that transports the reader to Manchester 1867, complete with mean streets, dirty sheets, and a blood for blood attitude.

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