Books: An office mystery for post-boom Ireland
Fiction: The Fallout, Margaret Scott, Poolbeg, €16.99
In a re-phrasing of Cyril Connolly's famous quote on "the pram in the hall" as a hindrance to creative activity, American writer Lauren Sandler declared that to be a successful female writer, you can only have one child. These words of wisdom seem to have blithely bypassed Kildare-based writer, Margaret Scott. Her first novel, Between You and Me, based on her own experiences as an accountant and mother of two, was a bestseller. It also dispelled any myths about accountants' sense of humour. Now, following the birth of her third child a year ago, she returns with a slightly darker piece of fiction which will resonate with readers in post-boom Ireland.
The Fallout refers to the aftermath of the economic crash and the effect it has on the ordinary workers in one investment bank, their families, their relationships and on the wider community. It is not all doom and gloom though, Scott keeps her wry wit throughout and there is also an intriguing mystery.
Friends are horrified that Kate is happy to leave the cosy environment of full-time motherhood and return to the workforce, which she left before the recession. Joining a German bank in the IFSC in a much more junior position than she held before, she finds the workplace has changed and is now a pressure cooker. Staff are expected to be at their desks by 7.30am and to work late. There are no allowances for working mothers, particularly from her terrifying boss, Leona, a mother herself.
Mary is a loyal employee with a chip on her shoulder. She is single and resentful of the other women who seem to have it all. She is also the one who is called upon to look after her parents, despite having a married sister who doesn't work.
Then there is Olivia, who left abruptly just before Kate arrived. A mystery surrounds her departure and there seems to be an omerta in the office about her.
Two younger managers - Cian, sneering and sarcastic and the more gentle Rob - along with a jargon-spouting Finance Director Declan, wholesome HR manager Geraldine and two slightly silly junior girls complete the department, which is presided over by Jacinta, an old-fashioned secretary who has been with the firm for 40 years.
From the beginning, an air of foreboding pervades as two registered letters arrive for Declan and Geraldine. Using the different viewpoints of each character, Scott takes us from the heady days of excessive spending, the expense-account lunches and foreign golf junkets through the crash and into the early days of recession.
As tensions mount and head office becomes more demanding, the pressure on each of the protagonists soon becomes apparent, driving wedges between wives and unemployed husbands who feel emasculated, grown-up children and their parents, while drawing others together in dangerous liaisons. Scott cleverly garners sympathy for even the most unlovable characters, the big spenders and the more prudent, all of whom are paying the price of austerity.
It takes a tragedy to bring the pressure to a head and in a wonderfully satisfying twist. We don't find out about Olivia and the contents of the ominous registered letters until the very end.
Scott captures the realities of life for working women, the juggling, the exhaustion, the guilt and pressure. But there are always little worthwhile touches - the pecking order of the mothers in the playground, making cupcakes for the school sale, seeing your sleeping child. The characters are authentic, too. We probably all know a Leona, a Mary or a Kate, which makes this such an engaging novel and bound to be a success, pram in the hall not withstanding.