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The Devil I Know, By Claire Kilroy. Faber & Faber, £12 99

 

Claire Kilroy's fourth novel is cryptic and exuberant and angry and allegorical and satirical all at once. It begins with a bang, a plane crash in which no one dies (or so it seems). Among the passengers is Tristram St Lawrence, linguist, recovering alcoholic and scion of an Anglo-Irish castle at Howth. The crash lands Tristram back in his home territory, where he soon joins forces with an acquaintance from primary school, an uncouth property developer named Desmond Hickey.

All Tristram's doings are presided over by a shady figure whom he calls Monsieur Deauville, with whom he communicates exclusively by mobile phone. It's 2006, and Ireland is in the thick of the boom preceding the bust. Celtic chicanery is having a heyday, and Tristram is caught up in all kinds of indigenous jiggery-pokery, as the country goes about digging itself into an ever bigger hole.

Or, for hole read "hell". "Only in Ireland would the acreage flanking a white sand beach be zoned for industrial use." Only in Ireland would multi-storey car parks and empty apartment blocks disfigure the landscape, while corrupt government ministers carry away Jiffy bags bursting with developers' bribes. Only in Ireland would avarice and folly be elevated to a way of life.

Some of Kilroy's characters are dead but won't lie down, like the crooked Larney with his incessant riddles. Tristram himself is a cause of surprise to people who'd heard he was dead. And an exorbitant dance-of-death furore overtakes the narrative as the Celtic Tiger shrinks to a paper tiger and the shaggy-dog aspects of the story are given free rein. If the tiger's replacement is an ill-used, but once cherished pony, it seems a fitting comedown following extremes of hebetude and roguery.

Move forward to the year 2016, and Tristram is summoned to give evidence at a public enquiry into the collapse of the Irish economy. This device frames the first-person narration of events encompassing the just-past state of financial delirium in Ireland. Kilroy's darkly comic, clever novel keeps the reader engrossed and aghast, as chaos is piled on top of crisis, fortunes are made and lost in a trice, and the Irish madness of the times runs its course.

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