Downturn Abbey, by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly
Spot-on satire captures our decline and fall
Paul Howard (left) and Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill Paul Howard (left) and Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
There’s one group of people in Ireland for whom the financial crisis has proved a godsend: writers. Journalists and commentators have created an industry of why-it-happened, whose-fault- was-it and where-do-we-go-from-here books, while novelists have been scribbling away in an attempt to explain our national disaster through fiction.
The crash has become prime fodder for our nation’s great satirist, Paul Howard, aka Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, who found a new lease of life for his novels in the splendidly titled Nama Mia! and The Shelbourne Ultimatum, as well as the very funny play Between Foxrock and a Hard Place, and now, once again, in the 13th book in his unstoppable series, Downturn Abbey.
A case could be made that by reading the Ross novels from their first appearance, in 2000, until this most recent volume, one can follow a story of arrogance, lust, greed, fear, loss and poverty that defines the Irish century so far. Ross’s narrative is the Irish narrative, and, poised for greatness but somehow coming up short, he personifies the nation. Hearing the infamous Anglo tapes on the radio recently, and the voices of those charmless men speaking like small-town versions of Gordon Gekko, it was hard to believe that adults so lacking in self-awareness could exist. They didn’t sound like sentient members of a profession who theoretically should have some degree of intelligence; they sounded like characters out of a Ross O’Carroll-Kelly novel. Just without the laughs.
Anyone who has been reading these books since Ross was a schoolboy will instantly feel 100 with the revelation in the opening chapter that the underage shenanigans of his 14-year-old son, Ronan, mean Ross is due to become a grandfather.
As the parents of the young lovers try to find some middle ground in their mutual desire both to blame the other’s offspring and claim ownership of the sprog, Ross’s wife, Sorcha, suggests that the teenagers move in with them in their “amazing, amazing house on the Vico Road”, a suggestion that goes down “like Josef Fritzl at a family reunion”, for the downturn has had an upturn and Sorcha is finally back where she belongs, with a view of Killiney beach.
There’s more bad news for the Rosser, however, on the family front. Honor, his daughter, is dropped from a film adaptation of one of his mother’s novels – “for the Hallmork channel” – news that Fionnuala is nervous of imparting over dessert, as she doesn’t want it to spoil the fig tarte tatin with shaved manchego.
His parents’ divorce comes through and the paterfamilias, Charles, announces that he intends to propose to his girlfriend, a moment that allows his ex-wife to speculate that she too might meet someone new. “It won’t happen,” Ross tells her, charm personified, in one of the book’s best lines. “Look in the mirror. You’re bet-down.”
It’s the aggressive relationship between mother and son that provides one of the most unexpectedly moving scenes in the novel. Fionnuala, of course, is a hugely successful novelist, and to promote her latest masterpiece, Fifty Greys in Shades, she appears on Miriam Meets with son Ross in tow. (The novel, which tells the story of “an active retirement group from south Dublin who go to Puerto Banús one summer and find themselves possessed by a renewed sexual vigour” actually sounds a lot more interesting than the trilogy whose name has been appropriated for the title.)