The bloody era of sectarian violence between nationalists and Unionists known as the Troubles that marked Northern Ireland from 1969 until the late ’90s comes boldly to life in Louise Dean’s astonishing second novel, This Human Season. From her scrupulously fashioned prose emerges a sprawling saga, structured in alternating chapters, of two Belfast families—the Catholic Morans and the Protestant Dunns—torn from without by their warring loyalties and from within by their own demons during the two months leading up to Christmas 1979.

The English-born Dean—her first novel, Becoming Strangers, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize—indelibly illuminates a cityscape held hostage to its divisive history:

In East Belfast, the sides of the pavements were painted a block of red, a block of blue, a block of white. Union Jacks hung faded at windows, or struggled, tatty and flapping, from lampposts. The murals bore paintings of men masked, in combats, pointing a gun at the passer-by. There was graffiti everywhere; threats and promises. You knew where you were in Belfast by the signs; you were never in doubt as to what the loyalties were, and the markings were the vital signs of a body whose politics were personal, person by person.

Much of the story takes place within the brute confines of the infamous Maze Prison, where IRA inmates in the notorious H block are in the third year of their so-called dirty protest. Having refused the jail-issued uniform, the men wrap themselves in blankets and towels and make a list of demands that includes being regarded as political prisoners and not common criminals. This campaign was the buildup to the 1981 hunger strike that culminated in the death of ten Irish Republicans (the most famous of these was twenty-seven-year- old Bobby Sands, who was elected to Parliament before his death.) Gut-wrenching scenes illustrate both the rank enmity and the bantering black humor between the prisoners and their jailers, which drive Dean’s narrative to passages rich in the atmospheres and inversions of a perverted folktale: “In the next cell a boy was . . . spreading shit on the wall with a small piece of sponge. Around the room were spread in brown the artefacts of the home, a fireplace, a picture above it, a pelmet over the window. The boy was adding curtains.” Quips a guard, “Would you call that satin or gloss?”

One of those “on the blanket” is nineteen-year-old Sean Moran, whose provocations land him in even more cruel conditions “on the boards.” Sean’s family are steeped in IRA sympathies, as are most of their working-class neighbors and the priests who minister to them. Normal life consists of smuggling messages into the prison during visits, concealing guns in baby carriages, holding clandestine meetings, and keeping curtains closed, because, writes Dean, “every other house in West Belfast had someone missing from it.” They are locked in a war of blood and nerves with their pro-British-rule foes.

Inside the Maze, also called Long Kesh, native Brit and former soldier John Dunn is the new hire. Dunn is a taciturn thirty-nine- year-old; his girlfriend’s a kindhearted woman who tolerates his moodiness and has a son fathered long ago, out of wedlock, whom he has never met. He is pegged as a loner by the other “screws” who work the H block, a rough-hewn pack of jailers with nicknames like Frig, Shandy, Bax, Jaws, and Skids. In this murderously divided universe verging on total moral collapse, these clownish, brutish men provide brilliant moments of dark comic relief—when they are not donning latex gloves to check the prisoners’ body cavities for contraband or mucking out the shit- and piss-sodden cells. Outside the Maze, these same guards are marked men, ambushed and shot dead while heading home from their favorite pubs or picked off while standing by their living-room windows.

Also mirroring the civil and political strife scarring the city is the disharmony at large in the Moran household. Sean’s feisty mother, Kathleen, begins an affair with an IRA stalwart to escape her miserable marriage to her hapless lush of a husband. She knows she is helpless to stop her younger son, Liam, from following in his older brother’s footsteps—he’s already sneaking out of the house to meet other thirteen-year- olds armed with homemade petrol bombs up on lethal Falls Road. Nor can she dissuade her daughter, Aine, from despising her. In one particularly powerful scene, as the story moves inexorably toward a rash of Christmastime killings, Kathleen and Aine stand before the window of a house, looking at a tall white Christmas tree bedecked with sparkling fairy lights. Kathleen begs her disconsolate daughter for an answer: “If there’s one thing I could do for you, Aine, what would it be?” Aine tells her, “Love my Daddy.”

Given that she was a child during the era of the Troubles that she chronicles, Dean’s grasp is impressive—she evokes danger-laden funerals, the charged feel of the streets, the unrelenting tensions of prison and domestic life, the buried dreams and wild fancies, the glints of hope. If she sometimes trespasses on caricature, overplaying the stereotypes of Irish humor, religious sentiment, and self-strictness alleviated only by the loosening drink, these lapses can be forgiven. What all of Dean’s characters possess, whether villainous or heroic, canny or foolish, holy or sinful, is the miraculous breath of life, animated by the writer’s affection for them.

The book’s final chapter takes place on New Year’s Day in 1980 and is eerily light-struck compared with events that up to now have been cast in dramatic chiaroscuro. The reader is pulled up short by the otherworldly mood of playful, idyllic repose. Perhaps it was the only way to end such a story, out of reach of Belfast if only for a moment, yet with more troubles still to come.

Lisa Shea received a Whiting Writer’s Award for her novel Hula (Norton, 1994).