Book Festival: Devil found in the detail of Kilroy’s Dublin fantasy

NORMALLY, I am reasonably immune to Gothic horror, probably because I am all too reasonable in the first place: there just aren’t ghouls and bogies, so what’s the point pretending? So all credit to Claire Kilroy, young Irish author of The Devil I Know, that the extract she read wormed its way a long way past my normally sceptical consciousness.

Why? Maybe because she refused to say what the two characters – aristocratic narrator Tristram and old schoolfriend-turned-builder Dessie – were fleeing from. All she revealed was that they had been putting together a vast property deal outside Dublin when they saw something that petrified them.

We join them in their truck, tormenting each other with stories about the Devil, and the way if you catch his face on the other side of a fire – “a white man but his face was black. And shiny. And greasy” – you wouldn’t make it through to the morning. The road ahead is dark, and in the cab, there is only the glow of a GPS which doesn’t register where they are. There’s no Saint Christopher medal on the dashboard. You wonder if it would have helped.

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And though all of this was effectively done, the dialogue sharp, the comedy credibly black, perhaps there’s another reason why I found it so devilishly convincing. Because the supernatural, Kilroy explained, wasn’t really the point, just a way of capturing what it felt like to live in a country that had itself turned itself into a dark fantasy of greed, where the roar of the Celtic Tiger had sucked up the old Irish values.

“There has been a lot of non-fiction about how all that happened,” she pointed out. “It’s only now beginning to filter out what it felt like at the time.” The Devil as metaphor for market forces stalking the land, mad property deal by mad property deal, leaving people frightened and ashamed at what they had unleashed? I can believe in that.

Adam Thorpe has made often made similar experiments with form and narrative structure, so it was intriguing to hear him explain why, in his latest novel – Flight – he has opted for the more conventional territory of the thriller.

After spending three years on a new translation of Madame Bovary, he explained, he wanted to fulfil his contract with a slim novel with a small cast. Instead, he found he had ended up with an action-packed novel about a freight cargo pilot on the run – on a Hebridean island not unlike Vatersay – from people who want to kill him because he had found out rather too much about the cargo he had been flying around the world.

Sounds conventional? Perhaps in outline it is, but the extract Thorpe read was credibly detailed (it helps that his father used to be a PanAm pilot), engagingly written, and even though his Buchanesque protagonist didn’t have much poetry in his soul, there were occasional flashes in the text to remind the reader that as well as being a fine novelist, he first burst into print as a poet.