The Devil I Know, by Claire Kilroy, Faber, RRP£12.99, 384 pages
There have been few attempts in Ireland to tell the story of the country’s recent spectacular rise and financial fall. Perhaps it is too soon – it happened only in the past decade. And though it is almost four years since the fateful decision to nationalise bank debt, the country has barely started bringing anyone to account.
The young Irish novelist Claire Kilroy is brave – and talented – enough to take a fictional stab at portraying the kind of Ireland that created and destroyed the Celtic Tiger. Told in the form of a courthouse cross-examination, her new novel, The Devil I Know, offers a portrait of one man’s experience as an unwitting property developer and paper multimillionaire. Peopled entirely by chancers, the novel is funny and pointed. And it doesn’t quite work.
Kilroy is the author of a couple of well-received novels; her first, All Summer, won the 2004 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Her hero in The Devil I Know labours under the Joycean name of Tristram St Lawrence, “the thirteenth earl of Howth, Binn Eadair, hill of sweetness”, as he tells the judge, or Fergus, as he keeps calling him. (They were childhood pals, he insists.)
Tristram is an alcoholic – in a bravura early scene he just about resists the urge to drink, having been lured to a pub. But that is the least of his problems. He had been presumed dead – “That was another Tristram St Lawrence,” he keeps having to insist. He is in thrall to the huckster Desmond Hickey, a would-be property speculator. And his only friend is the mysterious Monsieur Deauville, who never turns up in person, but is always on the phone.
Tristram and Hickey make a fortune on a land deal by bribing politicians and planners – common practice in Ireland’s property boom – until they inevitably make one transaction too many.
Kilroy captures well the unnatural, slightly feral mood of Ireland’s bubble. As Tristram and Hickey travel out of Dublin in search of a farm they have bought, Tristram describes how they drive in circles. “‘Ask for directions,’ I said to annoy him – we hadn’t seen another soul for miles. The few old farmhouses that we passed looked neglected and sad. There wasn’t what you’d call evidence of a local housing need. ‘The Celtic Tiger didn’t bother venturing this far north,’ I noted. ‘We are the Celtic Tiger,’ said Hickey. ‘We’re here now.’”
The structure of The Devil I Know works: putting it in the form of court testimony not only gives it dramatic heft but makes it believable. And Kilroy’s mix of the pathetic and grotesque is well done, putting one in mind of Patrick McCabe’s black comedies. But the characters struggle for depth. The weakest one, unfortunately, is Tristram. His plight is too contrived to ring entirely true. The Devil I Know is well written and fun but we must hope there are more definitive novels to come about Ireland’s fall.