Claire Kilroy’s novel The Devil I Know is an amusing and dead-on satire. It lampoons the “sky’s-the-limit” mentality of the Celtic Tiger years with the tall tale of a reformed alcoholic, Tristram St. Lawrence, who is swept up in an old schoolfriend’s property development scheme.
All the familiar types are at play: the hard-drinking chancer with the gift of the gab, the crooked politician, the greedy bankers, the aloof patriarch, the immoral Euro-trash, and the passive protagonist, smart enough to recognize the madness, but without the strength of character to stop himself going along with the crowd.
The tone of the novel is comic, and the setting is much more cartoon than reality. While the satire is well-directed and truthful, the experience of reading the book is initially not particularly compelling as you don’t really feel connected to any of the characters. Ultimately, however, I found myself reading into the night and wanting to know how it all ends, so I did fall under the spell of the novel. But, if I’d left it down half-way through, I’m not sure I would have cared enough to pick it up again.
To be fair to Claire Kilroy, it must be daunting to try and convey the delusional beliefs shared by the masters of business who abandoned all business sense and hoped the irrational exuberance would last forever. In contrast, Donal Ryan probably had an easier time writing realistically about the ordinary people who found themselves out of jobs and stuck with an underwater, but not inconceivable, mortgage, in his Booker-nominated novel The Spinning Heart. Indeed, how could anyone attempt to tackle the bankers’ thought-processes realistically? They were so far removed from reality as to practically qualify as a different species.
The Devil I Know steps into surreal territory towards the end to underline the shared lunacy and basic irrationality of the developer’s mindset. It was amusing to see the contrast between the reactions of the protagonist, Tristram, and his love interest, Edel, after the market has collapsed and they’ve realized they’re up to their eyeballs in debt. Tristram hallucinates and has an alcohol-fueled breakdown, while Edel calmly begins trying to hide assets and simply observes that they all partied too hard, and now the bill’s due. It’s telling that one of the only female characters in the book is the one with the clearest view of what happened and the most assertive reaction to it.
Ultimately, the story was strong and the observations astute; The Devil I Know is a highly enjoyable read and provides an interesting perspective on recent events Irish life.
- The political background to the property bubble has also been satirized recently by Diarmuid Ó Conghaile, in his novel Being Alexander.
- If you’re interested in recent Irish fiction, I can heartily recommend the following:
The China Factory by Mary Costello (short stories)
- You can purchase the Irish edition of Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know from Kennys.ie, as I did, or from the usual places.
- The US edition of The Devil I Know is published by Grove Atlantic, and available at all good booksellers.
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