Skating on the Surface of Celtic Tiger Ireland
Playing with his friends as a kid, Charlie nearly dies and from the moment of this early brush with mortality he is condemned, not to see dead people, but to dream their deaths. And so, with this unwanted capacity for premonition unifying his story and his life, Charlie’s tale unfolds.
As can be imagined, Ronan O’Brien – a solicitor who specialises in criminal law – in this, his first novel, is not overly concerned with rendering a gritty Irish realism, rather he is content to flit between the comic and the serious, the extraordinary and the mundane, flirting with the fantastic along the way.
Appropriately enough in the circumstances, there are three or four novels haunting this one particular novel: at times it is a kind of supernatural thriller, then a love story, with an ultra violent “gangster” element also thrown in for good measure.
In keeping with the constantly shifting register, the novel moves at a fairly rapid pace. Apart from in the love story which is positioned mid-way through, in which Charlie allows himself the luxury of dwelling on his most positive relationship with the love of his life, Aisling, the novel’s plot offers numerous twists and turns.
Charlie’s dilemma is one of trying to cheat destiny in his efforts to save those who die in his dreams. But, as is the way with fate (as the Greek tragedians knew), the outcome is always maddeningly fixed. Everything else in this world, however, is manifestly chaotic and unanticipated. It’s an odd juxtaposition that O’Brien presents, and he just about pulls it off.
O’Brien’s achievement – and it is an achievement – is to keep all these constituent parts from becoming a cumbersome and unpalatable pudding. Charlie’s penchant for on-the-button one-liners, his wry perspective on the collection of oddball characters that people the fictional Northside Dublin village of Rathgorman keeps the reader’s attention and interest focused. The adult voice is the more convincing and consistent: the younger self as filtered through the grown-up Charlie appears awkward in comparison.
In many ways, his hero is reminiscent of Patrick McCabe’s masterful creation Francie Brady, and O’Brien even nods his acknowledgement to this precursor by having Charlie read THE BUTCHER BOY. In a sense though, this book is “Butcher Boy-lite”, mainly owing to the deliberate way CONFESSIONS OF A FALLEN ANGEL avoids concentrating on any one aspect or element of the plot or character. The singularly absurdist vision of McCabe’s macabre fiction is absent here and so too is the dynamic edge that the truly unexpected provides.
Despite the moments of heightened emotion surrounding the death of Aisling, the whirlwind of events surrounding Charlie’s life forces the reader to remain steadfastly engaged with the surface of this character instead of plumbing his depths. It is the way of the modern world, and the presence of a criminal element in the novel would seem to prove it.
As with other narratives in which Irish gangland appears – be it journalism, film, the novel – their world of violence and blunt action becomes a means for the characters, and the audience, to get in touch with feeling, to be momentarily real. So deadening can modern life be that only extreme situations, and extreme violence particularly, can produce a reaction. It has become the cliché of modernity: certainly of Irish modernity.
The reader, of course, should not take any of this too seriously. This novel is not a moral treatise on the vicissitudes of contemporary Irish life, nor is it meant to be. It is, nevertheless, a reflection of our relentless need for movement and distraction, there is no time here for stillness or quiet rumination: everything in this world is in flux.
Is CONFESSIONS OF A FALLEN ANGEL a commentary on Celtic Tiger Ireland? Unintentionally perhaps. Is it a diverting read? Most definitely. – Derek Hand
Derek Hand is a lecturer in the English department in St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. He is presently writing A HISTORY OF THE IRISH NOVEL for the Cambridge University Press.
This review first appeared in the Irish Times
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.