'I wondered how on earth we ended up where we did'
In her fourth novel Claire Kilroy has recreated the type of devilish characters who were involved in the property bubble, writes ARMINTA WALLACE
CLAIRE KILROY’s publicity schedule reads like any young writer’s dream. She has recently returned from Edinburgh International Book Festival, where she shared a stage with the poet and novelist Adam Thorpe.
She was in Enniskillen for the Beckett Happy Days celebrations, she joined David Mitchell for an evening session at the Mountains to Sea festival, in Dún Laoghaire. And there have been interviews of all shapes and sizes, including one with a drive-time radio show in Australia.
She’s not complaining. But she is expecting her first baby in November. “It’s okay for me to be tired. That’s fine,” she says. “But it’s not about me any more. I came home late from Edinburgh, and I was in bed, and I could feel your man inside, going bonkers. It was like a horror film. Trying to get out.”
Maybe he was just happy to be home, I suggest. “Maybe . . . but then I Googled it, and maybe he just had the hiccups.”
Babies, eh? Kilroy is just beginning to realise how much her life is about to change. “I’m being reprogrammed,” she says. “I see things now I just didn’t see before. It was always about getting the books done – chipping away at sentences. Now I’m buying swaddles.”
Meanwhile her other baby – in the shape of her fourth novel, The Devil I Know – has been attracting a great deal of interest for its full-on re-creation of the boom-and-bust period. Set in 2016, when a tribunal finally gets around to re-examining the whole Celtic Tiger property-bubble, banking-collapse shenanigans, this romp of a book records the evidence of one Tristram Amory St Lawrence, third earl of Howth, and his unlikely alliance with the dodgiest of dodgy builders, Dessie Hickey.
The tribunal’s attempts to order the boom-bust chaos is represented in The Devil I Know by the placing of questions and answers on separate pages. Kilroy smiles guiltily. “It’s my shortest book, in terms of word count – although it looks like my longest,” she says.
But she did construct the book in terms of 10 sequential days of evidence, of which the final day, naturally, is the most dramatically outlandish.
How did Kilroy come by her unholy pair of central characters? “The book began with Hickey,” she says. “He’s based on someone I knew at primary school. He was funny, but he was a messer. Definitely not somebody you’d want to be running things.”
Tristram is the opposite. “In my mind’s eye Tristram is everything Hickey is not,” Kilroy says. “So, tall and blond and skinny and unsure of himself.”
He’s also naive, an Anglo-Irish Everyman, trotting to keep up with the rising tide of prosperity despite his vague, inarticulate misgivings – as we all did. “Tristram wonders how on earth he ended up with this guy Hickey,” says Kilroy. “In the same way, I wondered how on earth we ended up where we did.”
But there’s another side to Tristram. He is a recovering alcoholic who is constantly taking calls on his mobile from the man he knows only as his AA sponsor, a Monsieur Deauville of uncertain origin. When Deauville gets involved with Hickey the tale takes a distinctly gothic turn. It wouldn’t do to give anything away, but there’s a clue in the title.
Kilroy has come under critical fire for the novel’s supernatural elements, but she’s unrepentant. Never mind gothic, she retorts: the boom was pure sci-fi.
She first explored the subject in her 2009 novel, All Names Have Been Changed, which was, among other things, “a kind of elegy for what the boom had destroyed” in Dublin. “When I finished that book, in 2008, that was when the stories about the banking collapse really began,” she says.
From her home in Howth, Kilroy was able to see a gleaming white Celtic Tiger villa going up. “I always thought it was occupied, but it turned out not to be. Then it turned grey. Then buddleia started growing out of the walls.”
In retrospect it’s easy to read this as a metaphor for the madness, but at the time it wasn’t easy to read the situation at all. “It had all gone to hell in a handcart. But it was hard to process the information because we were all part of it.
“There have been lots of nonfiction books about the boom, and many of them have tried to explain what happened, but what they didn’t do was express the confusion, the reaction of the ordinary punter.”
This was what Kilroy set out to do in The Devil I Know. Then, as she was writing the book, the real-life story also took a different turn: the IMF moved in. “Nobody knew what would happen, but it was all everyone could talk about. People were asking would the Banklinks dry up and should we be buying tinned peaches. It was like an invading army. I remember thinking, We are so dead.”
Gothic tropes apart, the devil is in the detail in Kilroy’s Tiger tale – which has attracted cover blurbs from John Banville and Barbara Kingsolver, no less. In places, the writing glitters with a gleeful spite that registers in the mind of the reader with a satisfying schadenfreude “ping”. As the property bubble inflates to its seductive, glimmering climax Hickey and Tristram sit in the sun and watch the punters scramble for apartments outside the site office – sorry, the sales suite – hastily tarted up for the day with a pair of twin box balls. Tristram, however, is studying Hickey.
“A tuft of black bristles protruded from his ear, the match of the black bristles sprouting from his nose, as if something were growing inside him, forcing its way out.”
This force is animal rather than supernatural – though Kilroy’s designation of Hickey as “wolfish” is unfair to wolves, which, like dogs, are incapable of perfidy. But even now, when the dust of the property boom has long since settled over Ireland, she insists she still has a sense of shadowy forces at play.
“There really does seem to be a sinister force manipulating the whole thing,” she says. “We’re still being told ‘the markets say this, the markets say that,’ but who are these markets, exactly? And some people are still doing nicely out of it, thank you. If that’s not diabolical, what is?”
The Devil I Know is published by Faber
Boom-bust fiction: read all about it
Irish literary fiction has not, as is often claimed, ignored the past decade’s economic and social debacles. Here are some of the most entertaining engagements of recent vintage.
Capital Sins by Peter Cunningham (New Island). Set in Tramore in 2006, this satire-cum-thriller is about a development by the name of Goose Point – so tigerishly OTT it even features a zoo – backed by the Hubbi bank.
The Free and Easy by Anne Haverty (Chatto Windus). A bewildered American wanders through Celtic Tiger Dublin, trying to make sense of it all. He can’t, of course, which just adds to the fun.
Country of the Grand by Gerard Donovan (Vintage). Debut short-story collection from the author of Julius Winsome and Schopenhauer’s Telescope is concerned with far more than just Tiger Ireland. It’s us, warts and all.
Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow by Éilis Ní Dhuibhne (Blackstaff Press). This contemporary take on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is an acerbic love story and a lemon-zest morality tale.