Sunday, July 18, 2010

Book review: Without Him by Fiona O'Brien

Published in Irish Independent Review, Saturday, July 10, 2010

The decadent antics of Dublin socialites have been a rich seam of inspiration for author Fiona O'Brien this past eight years.

A former advertising executive who was born, bred and is still living in the D4 area, she has written entertainingly and with authority on multi-millionaire businessmen, their brittle, stick-thin wives and champagne lifestyle.

Although her fifth novel again mines this familiar territory, the premise of Without Him is more intriguing for the D4 set's recent fall from grace. The Veuve Cliquot has stopped flowing and the high-fliers are now at the epicentre of the economic crash. This is an opportunity for O'Brien, one of the smartest writers of popular fiction around, to get her teeth into deeper, seamier material.

The opening chapters don't disappoint. Shelley is the beautiful wife of charismatic developer Charlie Fitzgibbon. They once had a dream life: three gorgeous children, a suburban mansion, pots of money and social status.

When we meet Shelley, the dream has crumbled. Charlie's business has collapsed, he has fled the country to God knows where and she and the children are forced to move into the modest home of Charlie's estranged mother Vera after their mansion is repossessed. Charlie, the cad, has forged Shelley's co-signature on the house deeds and handed them over to one of his more demanding creditors.

Pity has been in short supply for those whom we have come to see as the architects of the nation's financial woes, but O'Brien makes a strong case for considering the fallout on the families of the central players. (The property big boys in the novel are fictionalised, of course, but O'Brien is clearly influenced by certain high-profile cases.)

A scene in which workmen come to remove the designer kitchen from Shelley's luxury home is powerful and poignant. Shelley's devastation is utterly believable.

It is not all doom and gloom. A touch of escapism arrives in the unlikely form of sultan of bling, Lukaz, a Russian oligarch looking to buy up half of Dublin. His outrageous tastes inject enough fun and fantasy to qualify the book as a rollicking holiday read.

The character of Charlie is less exciting. Absent for most of the story, he is a charismatic enigma when portrayed through the eyes of his mother, his wife and his children. When we get the full truth of the family secrets that have shaped him, he emerges as some sort of victim of circumstance both in business and in his personal life.

O'Brien may have misstepped here. Her readership is paying dearly for the greed of failed fat cats in real life. Will they be happy to swallow a fictional Champagne Charlie who claims to have simply been misunderstood?
- Susan Daly

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