Thursday 23 February 2017

Review: The Loss Adjustor by Aifric Campbell

(Serpent's Tail, £12.99)

MARY SHINE THOMPSON

The more morose among us operate on the basis that life is about adjusting to one loss and misery after another. Yet most of the rest of us manage to get on with the business of living, drawing on whatever ham-fisted strengths we have. We learn to tolerate varying degrees of failure.

Professional loss adjusters and novelists assess more systematically the risks that life throws in our path. Both engage with distressing incidents and complex, contentious claims.

The loss adjuster aims to minimise the financial risk to the insurer. The novelist tries to cast light on the muddles we get into -- muddles that arise when we cannot negotiate some kind of settlement of the claims that the ghosts of the past make on us. These claims are the meat of Aifric Campbell's The Loss Adjustor.

Caro is an English thirty-something who earns her living as a successful loss adjuster in the City. Despite her professional expertise, there is a piece of her own past that is stuck in her throat -- like a toad-shaped lump in the gullet of a grass snake, as Campbell puts it in her sensitive afterword.

Her loss is so massive that it weighs her down. Now Caro's soul is, she tells us, flat-lined. And she is utterly alone. Something happened in her mid-teens that choked the life out of her. It had to do with a torrid teen romance with Cormac, now a global rock star. And with her teen friend-enemy Estelle, who died tragically at only 15.

Caro is not the only character locked up in cold misery. She strikes up an acquaintance with Tom, a curmudgeonly old man -- a war veteran -- whom she meets on her annual visit to Estelle's grave. He too is moribund emotionally, and estranged from his son. Through him, we realise that the landscape inhabited not just by Caro and Tom but the entire British population is scarred, and that the scars never fully heal. The living are dead and the dead don't easily let go.

The story is further complicated by the fact that Caro is not always reliable, either in her assessments of insurance claims, or of her own story.

You realise early on that you cannot trust the tale-teller who, for example, claims that her puppy deliberately hurled himself under a car.

It gradually becomes apparent that she lacks insight into her sad life, and that standard psychiatric treatments offer her no wisdom. However, the halting, slow-burning friendship with Tom eventually dislodges the guilt-edged blockage of decades.

Finally it dawns on Caro and the reader that while we may all live, as we die, alone, the benefits of adjusting to a kind of loving outweigh the risks.

Trust this tale, tactfully and sympathetically told.

Dr Mary Shine Thompson is Dean at St Patrick's College

Irish Independent

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