Lighting up the lagoons of the past
The Loss AdjustorBy Aifric Campbell Serpent’s Tail, 250pp. £12.99
A second novel from this Irish writer is a work that demands to be taken seriously...
EARLY ON in Aifric Campbell’s brooding second novel, The Loss Adjustor, its narrator, Caro, makes a definitive observation: “My life now seems to revolve around tending to the departed and the absent. Of course there are other distractions: there is work to be done, a world to negotiate, but I often think . . . it’s reality that feels illusory . . . Present moments dissolve, slipping by like fast-moving rapids, and I am washed up again in the lagoons of the past”. In many ways this clear-eyed, lyrical assessment encapsulates the two forces at play in this taut and multi-layered novel. For while on one level the narrative follows the “distractions” of Caro’s day-to-day life at a City insurance firm in London, on another, it inhabits an altogether more nuanced, psychological otherworld, where the events of the past exert a devastating pressure on the present.
Until that one hot summer, Caro and her best friends, Estelle and Cormac, were inseparable. Theirs was an unremarkable childhood spent in “a place that presumed departure”, and dominated by an intense, all-consuming friendship. Then came Estelle’s violent death two weeks after her 15th birthday, and the course of their lives changed forever – in the aftermath, Cormac left for good (eventually bound for global fame), while Caro slipped into a twilight zone of pathological grieving. Twenty years on, she is the loss adjustor of the title, efficiently calculating and assessing the cost of misfortune, emotionally cut off from the world and paralysed by longing – for as well as her losing Estelle, in Cormac Caro lost the love of her life.
During the week, she goes about the grim, clinical business of her profession, while at weekends she makes the morbid pilgrimage back to the graveyard where Estelle rests. It is here that she meets Tom, an elderly misanthrope, also scarred by a past from which he cannot escape. The two become unlikely friends as Tom reveals the poignant tale of his wartime boyhood, and tries to cajole Caro out of her emotional isolation. At this point, the story spins off on another tangent, as the history of Tom’s home, built in 1939 and requisitioned by the army, comes to life in his retelling. In her author’s note, Campbell explains that this was inspired by the real-life history of her own house in Sussex, where she moved in 2002, and that this move planted the seed of the novel. It’s hard to know whether such a revelation helps or hinders one’s reading – on the one hand, it provides a glimpse of the creative process at work, but on the other it raises questions as to the relevance of this subplot within the story. Having said that, Campbell is adept at weaving together the various strands of her narrative, continuously switching between them without losing pace.
In other ways, too, the author’s personal experiences have left their mark. Born and raised in Ireland, Campbell has lived in the UK for many years (in 2007 receiving a PhD in Critical and Creative Writing from the prestigious University of East Anglia), and her impressive CV has influenced this novel in more ways than one. Just as she brought her background in semantics to bear on her highly acclaimed debut, The Semantics of Murder, here she draws on her 13-year career as an investment banker, lending a crisp authenticity to the corporate world it depicts. Furthermore, her training in psychoanalysis is evident in the way she maps out not just a history, but a whole psychology for her characters. Of these, Caro and Tom are the most fully realised, their backgrounds and behaviour convincingly shaping the people they’ve become. Caro’s mother, too, while a minor player, is complete in her vague, self-imposed solitude. Only Cormac feels two-dimensional, his rock-star charisma never quite believable – indeed, it’s a push to believe that after 20 years, and the transition into adulthood, a woman of Caro’s intelligence hasn’t been able to move on from her teenage passion.
The real achievement of this novel is, however, the writing itself. Campbell manages to infuse the cool, lucid language of her narrator with some truly luminous descriptions of place and emotion: the pain of loss “leaves you like a gutted apple, the core hollowed out by a sharp paring knife”; blackberries grow in “the shadowy woods where bluebells glowed an indigo bushfire in May”. She vividly evokes the landscape of the trio’s childhood – the sleepy, forgotten cul-de-sac where they live, the fields and secret copses of the surrounding countryside – and imbues it with the blurry, sun-drenched quality of old photos. And yet, in delving back into memory, the darker currents below the surface of this childhood idyll are subtly revealed: the ferocity of Estelle’s sudden rages, the destructive potential of teenage desire, the jealousies implicit in threesomes.
It is also to Campbell’s credit that, in a story with a Lovely Bones-esque adolescent murder at its heart, she eschews a lurid, voyeuristic treatment of the death. The atmosphere of menace is entirely present, but what fascinates her is the deeper psychological fallout rather than the act itself. Also echoing The Lovely Bones, there is a supernatural element at play: Caro imagines she sees Estelle’s flaxen-haired, skeletal ghost run around the graveyard with the other dead, but this is a device that feels surprisingly heavy-handed and cliched for a writer of Campbell’s sophistication and skill.
In the end, The Loss Adjustor is a book that demands to be taken seriously, both because of its ambitions and the beauty of its writing. Campbell’s gifts and insight elevate it above the scores of other loss-grief-redemption novels, and the closing scene, weighted with restrained emotion, offers schmaltz-free hope – after all that loss, Caro finally learns to adjust.
Catherine Heaney is a contributing editor to The Glossmagazine