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Boomtime Rot

Aiden O’Reilly

Tanglewood, by Dermot Bolger, New Island Books, €13.99, ISBN: 978-184840430

Dermot Bolger’s new novel gets off to a running start as the reader is dropped into the perspective of an Eastern European worker scouting through a derelict building carrying a canister of petrol. He has orders from his Blackrock property developer boss to torch the place. “This Victorian building was the sort of structure into which people could be herded,” he thinks, reflecting a past intimacy with violence. The arsonist gives little thought to the ethics of the act, beyond wondering why the locals “in smug houses” bother to campaign to have the building preserved.

This glimpse from the underside of the property boom makes for a stunningly effective beginning. The awareness of nefarious dealings throws a shadow over the more domestic scenes that follow, where we get to meet the main characters. The plot unfolds through the alternating perspectives of Ronan, Chris and Alice. Ronan is a developer, not one of the big fish but “a bit player in Ireland’s jackpot extravaganza”. Chris is a civil servant who feels he has missed out on things due to lack of nerve. His wife, Alice, is also caught up in the heady atmosphere of the era: she opens a fashion boutique in Blackrock. Their relationship is the emotional barometer of the story.

The plot gets under way when Hughes, the big-time property developer, seeks to enlist Ronan’s help in arranging a deal. “They didn’t shake hands: such gestures belonged to cattle dealers at marts. Instead they put their heads together to share a match as they lit another smoke.”

Bolger has set himself the task of painting a portrait of this small circle of people against the backdrop of the peak of the Celtic Tiger. He does so with admirable skill. He knows these people, knows the schools they went to in the 1970s, knows the kind of parents they had, knows the parents’ world of the 1940s. But he also knows their teenage children born in the 90s, the slang they use and the changed dynamic of romantic relationships. He understands intimately the mindsets of three different generations with equal facility. Bolger is not interested in name-dropping Dublin’s streets and pubs: it’s the social landscape of a city in flux which could be reconstructed from this novel, and his several others also set in Dublin.

He is good at capturing the murkiness of marital tensions and co-dependencies, grey areas where relationships run so deep they are beyond any judgement using off-the-peg pop psychology. “Her very closeness to Chris had caused these intense late-night rows.” Both in his depictions of marriages and of business friendships, Bolger will effortlessly refer back several decades to events when the protagonists were teenagers. His broad humanist vision perceives the continuity in people and makes for an expansive style which is an enjoyable change from the clipped and polished prose that has become the industry standard. Bolger does not make use of devices such as sentence fragments, paragraphs engineered to end in suspense or snappy exchanges.

The contrast between the venal developers and the wise down-to-earth foreigners is perhaps somewhat too heavily underlined. This reviewer cannot claim to personally know any big-time developers of the boom, but I have encountered the hubristic thinking of those who believed that the spiral of construction and price hikes was an unmitigated good. Such men (and it was mainly men) saw themselves as fountains of the cascade of money flowing through the country. They were believers in the new religion that wealth is created from confidence. Bolger invites the reader to scorn and pity his developers; there is never a moment of envy.

While the characters themselves are convincing, the dialogue at times begins to drag and feel repetitive, with long conversations which pointedly reference key issues of the age. Late in the novel there is a long scene of climactic soul-baring between Ronan and Kim. It is followed in the very next chapter by an even longer scene of soul-baring between Chris and Alice. Some readers may find this wearisome. Perhaps the writer wanted to give the final chapters the propulsion of a thriller; or perhaps there was insufficient editing.

The novel’s strong point then is not in the denouement, but there are many earlier scenes which resonate deeply. There is a portrait of Alice as a young emigrant in Canada, a deft adumbration of Ireland as a place of small ambitions where the true self will founder. An early scene with Aunt Patricia has the same startling spikiness as the opening chapter. Alice’s Aunt Patricia left the novitiate and was ever after estranged from the family. We get hints of her life as a hellion and free thinker. “Love doesn’t always last. I took a decision that I’d rather be lonely than dependent on any one man.” Her statement stands as a challenge to a dominant theme of the novel: estrangement and reconciliation within a marriage, and the implicit message that it is all worthwhile.

There are also a couple of revelatory scenes of Ronan’s addiction to online porn. “Pornography was the loneliest way to keep loneliness at bay, the crack cocaine of the respectable classes, a nightmare in which nobody could reach him or make demands.” The intensity also ups a gear when the perspective unexpectedly switches to that of the workman Ezal from former Yugoslavia and this section alone has the makings of a whole novel.

Tanglewood is not without its faults, but it grants the reader an enthralling look into people’s lives at the cusp of the boom, and almost as a side effect, some insights into the impact of the internet age.

1/11/2015

Aiden O’Reilly’s short fiction collection Greetings Hero is published by Honest Publishing UK.

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