Kevin Power went on hiatus for some 13 years after producing the chilling and beautifully observed Bad Day in Blackrock in 2008. Would that all novels were given such time to incubate, because White City is likely to be the most solid, well-rounded novel to come out of Ireland this year.
The protagonist Ben is in reflective mode when we meet him in rehab under the care of the incisive and sardonic Dr Felix.
The privately educated only child of a wealthy financier father and an aimlessly comfortable, alcoholic mother, Ben was a perennial student in post-recession boom-time Dublin. The family’s world, embedded in a leafy Dublin suburb, is subverted by the arrest of Ben’s father — heretofore a financial hero due to his exemplary and modest management of an investment bank — for the misappropriation of €600m.
Although in his late twenties, Ben can reasonably be described as a languid youth. Up until the moment of his father’s arrest and the cessation of his €2,000 a month allowance, he has never had a job and had no real intention of acquiring one. His PhD studies were as much about covering his inherent laziness as any latent interest in literature.
When he escapes the family home and moves in with his girlfriend Clio, an aspiring actress whose bohemian lifestyle is largely funded by her wealthy parents, Ben is forced to take a job in a telemarketing firm.
Out of the fog of almost constant drug-taking, a white knight appears in the form of James Mullens, a former schoolmate who sparkles with that gloss of ill-defined success in something or other, recognisable to anyone who’s frequented the soulless streets and bars of IFSC land.
A cannot-fail, get-rich-quick scheme, with the usual ethical opaqueness, has been devised and Mullens and his team – other thick-necked old boys from school – flatter Ben’s writerly ego, claiming they need his input to produce promotional materials.
Linking Belgrade, the white city of the title and the black pool of Dublin through the web of international financial capital, the scheme is presented as a victimless crime, if a crime at all.
And here’s what sets White City apart. Every character in this story is possessed of some depth or some hinted-at redeeming feature. In post-Anglo Irish Bank Ireland, we often try to make sense of the world by othering the members of the golden circles of the world – a golden circle is even mentioned here.
What Power is saying, often through the voice of Dr Felix, is that is too easy, a cop-out. No one here is let off the hook entirely, not even the reader.
“Real self-knowledge is cultivated at enormous cost. It often forces you to confront truths that you’d rather ignore. Most people won’t do that. That’s why most people have no idea who they are.”
Do we like the characters? Mostly not. Some of them are downright sickeners, the kind of people with whom the proles are all too familiar, looking down their snow-frosted nostrils at the tent dwellers along the canal.
Power’s genius lies in the way he has elevated them from the plain familiar to the somewhat understandable. He plays with the moral dilemma of needing to feed a habit, needing to find solid ground, needing to find a role in the world, while potentially putting the livelihoods and perhaps the lives of faraway others at risk.
The reader’s growing and justifiable anger is intermittently halted when a little nugget of truth causes self-reflection. Given the right set of circumstances, could we all be Ben, or even, God forbid, James Mullens?
This book is at once a pacy page-turner with a nerve-frazzling plot and a realistic and haunting tale of our interconnected world. While beautifully crafted, it is easy to read. Yet, it asks something more of the reader than the average novel. Namely, what do you know of these things, these behaviours, these stories and where is your place in all of this? White City is an all-round superb book that will stay with you long after the inevitable binge read.