Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 384 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Claire Kilroy, a young Irish writer, first came to my attention in 2008 with her second novel, Tenderwire, an astonishingly good literary thriller about an Irish violinist, which is set in New York.
I was less enamoured of her next book, All Names Have Been Changed, which is about a bunch of creative writing students at Trinity College who become dangerously obsessed with their once-famous, now washed-up tutor.
Her fourth — and latest — novel, The Devil I Know, came out in the summer and I greedily gulped it down in a matter of days. It is an extraordinarily funny satire about the recent collapse of the Irish economy — and certainly the best Irish book I read all year.
A public inquiry
This Faustian tale is set over 10 days in March, 2016, when Tristram St Lawrence, 13th Earl of Howth, is giving evidence at a public inquiry into the collapse of the Irish economy.
“People have been saying a lot of bad things about me in the press,” he tells the presiding judge. “I am here to say a few more.”
Tristram is from Anglo-Irish stock and grew up in a castle in Howth, a fashionable suburb of Dublin, but left the country in the early 1990s. He makes his living on the international conference circuit as an interpreter (“I do all the major European languages”). But in 2006 he returned to Ireland by accident — literally — when his plane flying from Birmingham to Florida was diverted to Dublin Airport after a near-disaster in the air.
During his unscheduled stopover, he stays at the airport Hilton, where he runs into an old school chum now turned property developer, Desmond Hickey. From this unexpected rendezvous an entire web of greed, hubris and deception — involving speculative development, corrupt politicians, prostitution and international money lending — is set into motion.
Getting rich by doing nothing
As Tristram’s tale unfolds over the course of the inquiry, we learn that he is a recovering alcoholic, and that his mentor, Monsieur Deauville, is always just a phone call away to provide support and encouragement whenever he feels the need for a drink coming on.
M. Deauville later acts as a shady businessman, who sets up Castle Holdings — “It bought nothing, sold nothing, manufactured nothing, did nothing, and yet it returned a profit of €66 million that first year” — in Tristram’s name. This shell company, which effectively acts as an unsupervised licensed bank, provides the much-needed funds for Hickey’s big development project just a few hundred yards shy of Tristram’s ancestral home.
The Claremont project, on the site of a derelict cement factory in Howth, includes eight apartment blocks (“the guts of 400 residential units”), 12,000sqm of office space and a hotel. But it needs to be rezoned from industrial to high-density residential and commercial — an unlikely prospect given its location in an area of outstanding natural beauty. But this is where Minister Ray Lawless (note the name) steps in to sort things out, brown paperbag style.
This speculative development costs €10 million for the land alone, but within a week of its rezoning it is valued at €60 million. When a glamorous PR campaign swings into action, people queue around the block to be the first to buy an overpriced, not-yet-built apartment. Hickey, Tristram and co are coining it, but instead of quitting while ahead, Castle Holdings goes further into debt to fund bigger and potentially more profitable developments. And then the global financial crisis of 2008 hits — with devastating consequences.
Darkly comic morality tale
The Devil I Know perfectly captures the madness and chaos that gripped Ireland during the boom years. Indeed, that madness and chaos becomes Beckett-like towards the end of the novel, which descends into a kind of crazy magic realism. While Kilroy’s style is far from pretentious, her narrative is rife with puns, word play and Irish literary references — great fun if you are into that sort of thing, but not obtrusive or bothersome if you are not.
I laughed a lot while reading this book and quoted long passages of it to Mr Reading Matters, because I knew much of it would resonate. (He once worked in a cement factory in Howth, for instance.) Like all true satires, it uses wit as a weapon — to highlight the stupidity, idiocy and foolhardiness of those builders, bankers, politicians, developers and businessmen who put their own greed before the good of the nation and the environment.
As a morality tale, The Devil I Know is a truly fine and entertaining one. Having seen firsthand those now-abandoned housing developments that are scattered the length and breadth of Ireland, I have often wondered, how on earth did so much development get approved — and funded? This book, in its darkly comic way, explains it pretty well.