Claire Kilroy is the female Tim Pears. Just as I confuse and conflate Pears with Tim Parks (though I’ve only read the latter), so Claire Kilroy is to me forever mistaken for Claire Keegan. Names that begin the same, both Irish, published by Faber: who can blame me? Now that I’ve read both writers, I have a point of distinction. Keegan’s stories are pretty sober and unsmiling; Kilroy’s new novel, on the other hand, is a riot of energy and enjoyment. The Devil I Know is the third novel I’ve read which has Ireland’s property boom and bust as a central element. Novelists works slowly, and the incubation period is typically a few years: remember the 9/11 novels that began to appear in the middle of the last decade? Now that we’re five years on from the moment the credit crunch began to bite, and we’ve already had the facts, here comes the fiction. We’ve had Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, where the Irish obsession with property values, and the sudden loss of that psychological crutch, was threaded into a love affair. Then Julian Gough’s Jude in London, where the strongest set pieces were a couple of satirical swipes, simultaneously blunt and sharp, at the Irish property boom (one of which you can read here: read it). Claire Kilroy’s contribution, unlike those two, really is all about the crash. It’s an angry book, a tearing-its-hair-out book, though the most direct application of the author’s fury is on the back cover. It doubles as a handy plot synopsis. Otherwise, the anger is finessed, piped beautifully into a confection of narrative voice. Our speaker is Tristram St Lawrence, thirteenth Earl of Howth: the proper names recall the opening lines of Finnegans Wake, which are quoted as the book’s epigraph. The Wake is a dream narrative, and Tristram is living a nightmare, giving evidence to a public inquiry in 2016 into the Irish collapse and his involvement in it. “People have been saying a lot of bad things about me in the press. I am here to say a few more.” His story starts at a clip and doesn’t let up: Kilroy’s first two novels were thrillers, and she knows how to keep things moving. Within three pages we are in a grippingly recounted plane crash, as Tristram tries to explain how he met the property developer Desmond Hickey. His account has a strain of unreliability, but what first person narrative doesn’t? He and Hickey seem to go back some way, but when they meet this time, Tristram’s recovery from alcoholism seems about to wobble, when he is saved by the call of his mobile phone. The mysterious M. Deauville, Tristram’s AA sponsor, pulls him away from one temptation and into another. Tristram goes into a partnership with Hickey, bankrolled by Deauville, and becomes … what does he become? A divided man, simultaneously engaging in egregious property deals and expressing outrage even as Hickey talks him through it. (A handy narrative device.) Here is where the reader – and this reader is pulling out his copy of Fintan O’Toole’s Ship of Fools to read next – must presume that there is fact in the fiction. We are required to be outraged by the Irish government’s loopholes and incentives which Hickey discloses to Tristram. When Hickey tells him of plans to build a hotel in a new development, Tristram scoffs. “The last thing that Howth needs is another empty hotel.” Not so, responds Hickey. “You can’t build an apartment complex in Ireland without a hotel,” he explains, otherwise you won’t qualify for tax write-offs. Or the fact that “global corporations can establish unsupervised banks in Ireland,” to avail of the low corporation tax. This is plausible, given that Ireland – European home to massive modern businesses like Microsoft, Google and Facebook – built its super-soufflé Celtic Tiger economy on a 12.5% rate of corporation tax from 2003. We find too that so desperate is the government to keep the property river flowing, that building control is relaxed to ineffective levels. And so the plot goes on, with a full cast of spendthrift banks and corrupt government ministers, where the only measure of value for any activity is currency.
Across the country people were digging themselves into big holes … big holes were spreading across Ireland, eating away at the heart of the island. Nobody was interested in negative sentiments. People who engaged in moaning and cribbing from the sidelines should frankly go and commit suicide, the Taoiseach had told us.
Amazingly, that last bit isn’t made up either. Consider the leader of a country who is either so stupid that he does not know that a property bubble will sooner or later lead to that country’s economic destruction, or so selfish that he doesn’t care as long as the good times sustain his popularity, and Kilroy’s anger seems, if anything, understated. Ireland, of course, was not alone in its madness, and many of the follies described in the book could apply equally well to the UK and further afield. Loan notes, for example, which enable investors to buy properties without any money (“How can you buy something with debt? I don’t understand what’s happening any more”). The sins were committed by a few, bought into by everyone dragged along for fear of not being able to buy a house if they didn’t act now – and the consequence, repeated as a refrain late in the book, is that “all of us would pay for it, many times over and for the rest of our lives.” The anger sustains the book, and feeds into the plot right up to the last page, where otherwise the reader might be frustrated by a tricksy twist or two (and the foreshadowing that goes before). But the cartoonish dimensions of the characters are an inevitable part of a story like this, somewhere between a rage and a romp. I must confess to a sense of dread when I see that a book breaks the 350-page barrier, but this one went down like – well, like the Irish economy.