Review: On the Floor by Aifric Campbell
Female protagonist in this pacy novel is not endearing, says Sile McArdle but the great writing wins over the reader
Serpent's Tail, €16.35
IT'S not often that you encounter a book that breaks a fundamental rule (well, one of mine, anyway) and gets away with it.
Aifric Campbell's third novel, On The Floor, which was shortlisted last week for the prestigious Orange Prize, tells the edgy tale of Geri Molloy, a brilliant 28-year-old Irishwoman swimming with the big-money fish on the trading floor at Steiner's investment bank in London.
Geri's ticket to the big time comes -- as many things do -- from a gutsy impulse that could easily have bellyflopped and made her a laughing stock.
When a massive shares offer rears in the dying minutes of business on March 5, 1986, her basic-instinct cold call to eccentric Hong Kong hedge-fund manager Felix Mann seals Steiner's biggest deal.
As her macho colleagues freeze during the 11 taut minutes between flotation and salvation, maths genius Geri coolly holds her nerve and makes her name. In that moment she becomes someone else: one of the boys.
This author is well qualified to articulate such a rite of passage, a make-or-break blooding into the-then supremely male world of high finance.
Fourteen years ago, Campbell became the first female managing director on the London trading floor at Morgan Stanley.
"I figured out early there were three things I'd have to do to get to the top: prove that I was better than the men around me, accept that it would take me longer to get promoted, and that I would always get paid less than the guys," reveals Campbell. "You can call that a sell-out or you can call it being pragmatic."
The Dublin-reared author even chose a poem by Anthony Cronin about "women in pin-striped suits" with "set jaws and anxious faces" as the book's dedication.
After snaring control-freak Mann as an exclusive client for Steiner's, Geri spends five years at that elusive "top", with big-buck salaries, an immaculate Oxbridge boyfriend, a coveted London postcode and all the things money can buy.
But this sparsely written novel does not laud such lifestyle success. Instead, it unflinchingly homes in on its fragility: bust inevitably follows boom, as we know only too well.
Her split with suave Stephen Graves, a banker with Steiner's closest competition, is the overt start of Geri's unravelling. The ensuing slump into alcohol abuse, insomnia and don't-give-a-damn territory makes even more sense when the familial roots of her brittle, aggressive take on life are painfully exposed.
Campbell's pacy book has many strands, and even those who never again want to hear the words "share price" or "stock market" should not be deterred by its setting.
For the devil is neither in the detail nor the dealing here.
The devil is in the people -- and Campbell has streaked most of them with a callousness that is as clever as it is appalling.
There is not one truly empathetic character, although there are deft glimpses of humanity and vulnerability.
Yes, Geri loves her loping Labrador, Rex, and is consumed by the loss of Stephen (or certainly what he represented). However, she is so vitriolic and so busy squandering her talents in a mire of self-pity that it's impossible to favour her.
Charming colleague Rob shows occasional warmth and even the promise of heart towards Geri, but his cruel side crosses the line.
Even Geri's single female friend, perfectly groomed uber-intelligent American Zanna, is not what she seems.
And the nerdy overweight statistician, whom the dealers call Pie Man (to his face), becomes downright sinister when the plot thickens.
As pressures build -- including the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War -- Geri faces another make-or-break situation: her odious paymaster Felix wants her in Hong Kong and she must strike a bargain that satisfies Steiner's, or lose everything.
On the Floor is about knowing your own worth and refusing to be a commodity. But has Geri's own credit crunch robbed her of that precious judgement?
Well, here's the broken rule: this reviewer didn't care whether the heroine sank or swam -- yet can still recommend this book because of the sheer quality of the writing.
Campbell has taken a considerable risk with such a wry, coarse, cynical, jargon-laden and tough offering. But then again, risks reap dividends.
Sunday Indo Living