The Devil I Know

Claire Kilroy

Published by Faber and Faber 16 August 2012

384pp, paperback, £12.99

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

 

Meet M. Deauville, Monsieur de Ville, or is it Monsieur du Veil? He’s the shadowy figure behind Tristram St Lawrence and his ‘specialist lending’ company Castle Holdings, the man who knows and fixes so much, manipulates and steers but remains invisible, the money man, ‘a man from an old era’. As old as time, you might say. Devilishly cunning, with an appetite for deals, it is M. Deauville who has landed Tristram in court, giving evidence, from where Claire Kilroy’s savagely satirical new novel about the Irish property boom and bust is narrated.

Scion of an old, decayed, property-owning family but long-resident overseas, Tristram has returned to Ireland after a near-disaster on a plane and with the encouragement of M. Deauville, his AA sponsor who saved him after a descent into alcohol hell. ‘I heard you were dead,’ is the refrain that greets Tristram everywhere, in the bars and offices of Dublin. Perhaps he is.

It’s a combination of the dead of soul or heart, the greedy and the corrupt who – knowingly or not – enable M. Deauville’s plans to come to all-consuming fruition, and they are thick on the ground in Ireland, from Tristram’s old slapdash builder pal Desmond Hickey to Minister Ray Lawless who fast-tracks the rezoning of the land for the Claremont project, a monstrous development in an area of outstanding natural beauty which, overnight, rises in value by a factor of six.

Men like these Kilroy dubs the Golden Circle – ‘builders, bankers, financial regulators, county councillors, even the serving Taoiseach’ – fingering them comprehensively for the morass of debt and deflation that sucked the country in after its orgy of hubris and self-deluded expansion. M. Deauville’s cash simply set the wheels in motion.

Her novel shifts between broad caricature and lyricism in its evocation of a landscape scarred and gouged by madcap building projects, like the Claremont with its leaking sewage pipes and box ball ornamentation. Contrast this with Hilltop, the ruined Eden inherited by Tristram from his mother, a disintegrating Georgian pile stripped of its grace notes, where the neglected jungle of a garden is haunted by a clapped out, ancient pony, the frail, neglected remnant of a more innocent age.

‘They all thought they could make millions overnight. But that’s the problem with setting yourself up as a little god. You invite the other fella in.’ As it approaches its conclusion the book’s inclination towards a morality tale becomes all the starker and Tristram is ‘cast out of the garden’ – he, the last of a line that began with a descendant of Sir Tristram, a knight of the round table.

Kilroy’s take on the Irish episode invites comparison with Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz which used domesticity and an adulterous relationship as the core of its own withering assessment of the same national tragedy. Here, there’s adultery too, but the story is more operatic and grotesque although achieved with comparable brio. Kilroy is confident and comic, as well as conscious of an aching sense of loss.

And so too is Tristram, who at last understands – later than the reader, surely – what he has been a part of... And now, the only way is down.

 

 

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