Monday, January 14, 2013

Review of The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy (Faber and Faber, 2012)

Tristram St Lawrence, the son of the Twelfth Earl of Howth, has been living in exile and working as a translator when the transatlantic flight he is on makes an emergency landing in Dublin in 2006.  In an airport hotel he meets Dessie Hickey, a former classmate from school, now a builder-cum-developer.  Tristram’s employer and sponsor, the financier, Monsieur Deauville, is interested in Ireland’s boom and Hickey’s prospects.  He instructs a reluctant Tristram to set up Castle Holdings and to finance Hickey’s scheme to develop a large site in Howth, to the north of the city.  Soon Dessie and Tristram are funnelling European investment money into a shoddy development, bribing politicians, and have become involved in an investment consortium buying up properties in the UK, Europe, the Middle East and China.  Then the Lehman Brothers bank collapses ...

The Devil I Know is a Faustian, allegorical and satirical tale of the boom and bust in Ireland told through the eyes of Tristram St Lawrence and his tragic foray into property development in the dying days of the Celtic Tiger.  Setting the book in the two weeks leading up to the centenary of the 1916 uprising, the catalyst for independence, and using the narrative form of a testimony at an inquiry were inspired choices, setting the excesses of the Celtic Tiger and the loss economic sovereignty against the quest for self-determination, and framing the tale so it speaks directly to the reader.  Kilroy’s prose is light, expressive and witty, and she keeps the story moving at fair clip.  The plot captures the characters (the deluded, naive investor; the jack-the-lad builder/property developer; the social climbing wife, the crooked politician; the greedy corporate financiers; and the faceless European backers), scams, sentiments, rhetoric, politics and naivety of the boom and the disbelief and unworldliness of the crash.  The only bits that seemed to jar a little were the ending, where the story switches to a slightly different, more fantastical register, the lack of any ordinary folk and their role in the property frenzy beyond one scene where they clamour to put down deposits on shoe-box apartments, and the Anglo-Irish background of Tristram, who is portrayed as something of an innocent and deluded dupe, swept along by the party; the Anglo-Irish gentry are not traditionally played in this victim role, although the inversion is interesting in and of itself.  Overall, an entertaining and enjoyable tale of modern Ireland’s rise and fall.

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