Serpent's Tail, £12.99, 248pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
On the Floor, By Aifric Campbell
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books, 2013.
Friday 23 March 2012
Abanker facing burn-out may not make the most sympathetic of central characters, which is perhaps why the protagonist of Aifric Campbell's third novel – a 28-year-old female investment banker – is an anti-heroine. Geri Molloy is a big fish at Steiner's, having made her name by catching the firm's biggest client. Outwardly, she is riding high in the sector's 1990s heyday, but privately is grappling with an emotional crisis that threatens to sabotage her success.
As a character, she quickly reveals herself to be macho (one of her golden rules is to treat other women bankers with contempt), self-destructive (she is nearly always drunk), and happy to work the system. Yet she has enough insight to realise that she is getting worked by it too, and enough humanity for us to care about her outcome.
Campbell, a former investment banker herself and the first female MD at Morgan Stanley, joins Nicola Monaghan and Venetia Thompson as writers who are placing female characters in the world of finance. Yet it is not sexual politics but the internal drama of her characters – as well as this closed world of risk and excess – that makes Campbell's Orange Prize long-listed novel such an energetic and illuminating read.
The story is set against the first Gulf War in 1991, and it reflects the intersections between warfare and the City. A sense of wider moral disconnection echoes through the novel. Geri justifies her own adrenalin-fuelled surfing of the stock-market - "Let's face it, it's not really anybody's money" - while her star client Felix Mann, a Cambridge-educated investment genius, has built his phenomenal success on fiscal amorality. Profit is blind, he tells Geri, even if it means going against his father's dying wish not to sell his company to his avowed enemies. The novel talks engagingly about banking – its finance-addicts, gamblers and mathematicians – even to readers with little inclination to learn about its machinations. Colin, or "Pie man", the overweight quantitative analyst at Steiner's, sneers at the swaggering traders around him. Soon, machines and maths will render them dinosaurs, he says. "The future is quant."
Despite Geri's meltdown, her banking life never really falls out of shape. Success maintains itself, alongside the inner crumbling. Campbell manages to make this portrayal both eloquent and funny. "I feel I could lie here forever," says Geri in bed one morning, "like a car stuck in the ditch, wheels spinning with no rescue in sight."
Just as we are ready to give up on Geri's self-destructive behaviour, something appears to shift. She realises her success has come as a result of being manipulated by powerful men around her. In the end, On the Floor is a funny-yet-serious coming-of-age story about a young woman who finally grows up and takes control.
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