By Sheena Joughin
6:59AM BST 16 Aug 2012
The cover of Claire Kilroy’s fourth novel declares her “a writer unafraid to take risks”, which is undeniably true. It’s pretty risky to set a novel on the building sites of County Dublin in 2006 – a year after The New York Times described Ireland as “the Wild West of European finance” – and hope to build dramatic tension into the fact that it all goes horribly wrong. It’s a risky strategy to have that novel narrated by a garrulous man, giving evidence to an inquiry, held in 2016, who refuses to speak of his personal life, and who may or may not be already dead. And it’s a risk for any writer, whether Irish (like Kilroy) or not, to quote bits of Finnegans Wake, and to trust Joyce’s exuberant meltdown of form to elevate their own lack of coherence into great significance.
Kilroy risks all this and more. Her narrator is Tristram St Lawrence: aristocrat, landowner, and weekend existentialist, who takes instructions from mobile phone conversations with a mysterious M Deauville. Tristram is in a plane crash as his tale begins, then stranded in Dublin, in the drunken company of rogue property developer Desmond Hickey. M Deauville establishes an international moneylending organisation, in Tristram’s name, and pays him an exorbitant salary to “finance exciting business ventures from the ground up”.
Much land is bought with billions of borrowed euros. Corrupt politicians are involved. There are squalid scenes in suburban hotels. There is a crippled family retainer, named Larney, who wanders these pages asking dark riddles, until he succumbs to magical realism, grows 60ft tall, and turns out to have “been dead for years”.
The prose is peppered with puns, sub-Beckettian deadpan, and much inscrutable free-association (“I never carry cash. I never have to… I am barely here”). Computers hum, phones ring, diggers dig. But it all lacks drama, since Tristram is never excited by the boom his company facilitates, as he would have to be for his oddly insubstantial story to engage us. Other people seem interchangeable to him (“Boyler or Coyler or Doyler”), and he is often perceived as a phantom himself. “What precisely the whole sorry mess goes to show – I cannot yet say,” he decides. Kilroy’s greatest risk is perhaps that readers may feel the same way.
|FABER & FABER|