White City by Kevin Power.
Ballsy, gritty, in places laugh-out-loud funny, this is a social satire with memorable characters and a gripping plot. Set in Dublin and Serbia, following the Irish financial crash of 2008, it opens with 27-year-old Ben, the son of a disgraced Irish banker, undergoing therapy in a rehab unit. The novel uses Ben’s relationship with the ironic psychiatrist, Dr Felix, as a device to frame the story and track the protagonist’s journey.
As his father’s misdeeds are being played out in the media, with the threat of court action looming, Ben is unwilling to deal with his parents’ disgrace. But when his allowance is cut off, he is compelled to become financially independent. Ben, spoiled and narcissistic, is also forced to abandon a PhD (that in truth he hadn’t even really started) and park his aspirations as a writer. He leaves home and takes a low paid job in a call centre. Fortunately, he meets and moves in with girlfriend Clio, and his life becomes drug filled, meaningless - fuelled by self-loathing, and his hatred of his parents and their materialistic middle-class respectability.
A chance encounter at a nightclub with Mullens, a fellow ex-student from his old private school, appears to be the answer to all of Ben’s problems. He offers him a cut in a once-off property deal in Serbia. This will allow Ben to leave his mindless job, get away from his parent’s and to move to the comfort of a luxurious existence somewhere else. But Ben doesn’t trust Mullen’s, or the other Irish ‘lads’ also involved in the shady deal.
Through a haze of drugs (vividly and viscerally portrayed) Ben tries to make sense of what is really going on. Following a trip Belgrade to examine the development site, he suspects that the Serbian partners he meets are gangsters, ruthless speculators out to screw the naïve Irish lads, and their fellow countrymen who are grappling with the political outfall from the recent war.
Power’s prose flows with a wordsmith’s ease, with clever and witty language, phrases that are often so memorable that I paused mid-paragraph to admire his skill.
Like Power’s debut novel A Bad Day In Blackrock, White City would make a stunning film which could ameliorate one aspect of the book that disappoints - a convincing sense of place. Serbia is portrayed predominantly in a negative light. Although the descriptions are through the narrator’s eye, it should have been possible to indicate to the reader that this view was jaundiced. I suspect that non-Irish readers may also find a sense of place lacking in Power’s depiction of Dublin. However, this is one shortcoming in an excellent novel and a most enjoyable read. The characters are well drawn, often comedic, and he has successfully captured the swagger and arrogance associated with certain players in the Celtic Tiger economy and their entitled progeny. A well-structured plot keeps the reader continually engaged and unsure of how it will all end - a memorable and enjoyable read.