The year is 1867 and the place is Manchester, England. Tensions are high as three men from the Fenian organization of rebels are being hung at dawn for the death of a policeman. The police are on high alert, especially Head Constable James O'Connor. There are expectations of trouble and although the hangings go off as planned, there are plans being made in the rebel group for revenge.
O'Connor is a newcomer to Manchester and an odd choice for Head Constable being an Irishman in a town that fears the Irish. He was serving in Ireland when he lost his wife and child to illness and lost himself in drink. He should have been fired but instead the powers that be had him transferred to Manchester to pull himself together and move on with his life. He is alone in his new life. The other policeman he works with don't trust him as their enemy are the Fenians. He has an extensive network of Fenian informers so is a necessary evil to the police but the Irish don't accept him either as their enemy is the police. He inhabits a no man's land between the two factions, while trying to also defeat the alcoholism that has forced him to this location.
Stephen Doyle is a hired assassin. He has come from America to Manchester, hired by the Fenians, in order to assassinate someone in the power structure in retaliation for the three hangings. Doyle is a veteran of the Civil War where he learned to kill without mercy. He is there only to kill and his nemesis becomes O'Connor. The two are set against each other and their rivalry will last until one of them is dead.
Ian McGuire is best known for his novel, The North Water, which was a Booker longlist nominee and one of the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the year. Like that title, The Abstainer tells the harsh struggle of men pitted against each other while trying to maintain the code that they believe is the honorable way of life. This is a powerful book that demands a lot of its reader and there are no fairytale endings in McGuire's bleak worlds, but the essential questions he asks about good and evil are worth the effort. This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction,.