All last week Mister Litlove came to bed irritated, and it was my fault. For his birthday I’d bought him a non-fiction exposé about tax havens and it was annoying the hell out of him. I’ve been mining a seam of books for him about the banking crisis, and they have been fascinating in a car wreck sort of way. Did you know, for instance, that in America, the country’s wealth is concentrated in so few hands that measured by other standards it could be taken for a Communist country? And when the markets went down in London, what kept the banks afloat? The money from drug trafficking. I tell you, it is not pretty out there. This latest book about tax havens explained how law, politics and commerce have combined to allow the super rich to stay that way, whilst the rest of us wallow in economic depression. The injustice of it all was making my usually even-tempered husband angry.
I’m not quite sure, then, whether or not to pass onto him Justin Cartwright’s latest novel, Other People’s Money. Although this is a highly topical novel with an eye to the sorts of events mentioned above, it is essentially a comedy of manners and an extremely entertaining read. The Trevelyan family find themselves in severe embarrassment in the wake of the world financial crisis. For generations they have run Tubal & Co, a private bank which has been a byword for all that is safe and secure about the old boy network. However, when steely patriarch Sir Harry Trevelyan is incapacitated through illness, his son, Julian, forced into banking despite his wishes, has to move fast to cover up the huge losses they have made on their toxic hedge funds. Whilst Sir Harry has clearly been a bit of a brute in the private sphere, his banking methods were sound. Nice Julian, however, was lured into the market for derivatives with disastrous results. If he can sell the bank to an American entrepreneur quickly, they can hide the shady dealings they’ve done to prevent themselves from going under.
The circumstances of the novel have a vaguely blockbustery feel to them, although the prose is too insightful for this to be anything other than literary fiction. In the glamorous villa in Antibes, loyal secretary Estelle tends to the stroke-befuddled Harry, whilst his fluffy second wife, Fleur, avoids him in London and dallies with her private trainer. Julian and his second-in-command, Nigel, rush around the family vaults, and fly to Chicago, Switzerland, Antibes, in a desperate last-ditch attempt to prevent scandal, Julian finding it hard to lay eyes on the adorable innocence of his small children without bursting into tears. And a small newspaper in Cornwall is contacted by an anonymous whistleblower with a grudge, determined to bring the story into the public domain before the sale goes through.
The lives of the wealthy are balanced by an unusual secondary character, an elderly actor and playwright, Artair MacCleod, who was once upon a time Fleur’s first husband. Artair relies on a small grant regularly given by the bank (a sort of consolation prize from Sir Harry) to stage his children’s plays whilst he works on his magnum opus, a five-hour play on the life of Flann O’Brien, in which he is determined that Daniel Day Lewis will star. When the grant is mysteriously suspended, he moves into diva mode, kicking up a fuss that contributes to the Trevelyan’s difficulties. One of the pleasures of Cartwright’s writing is his ability to conjure vivid characters into being, and Artair MacCleod turns out to be a real treat, a man described as ‘one of those higher loonies, whose whole life is a paranoid performance.’ But as the novel unfolds, his eccentricities become rather endearing and his first wife Fleur ultimately decides that ‘Artair has done something heroic: he has kept faith with art and its power.’ Art features in this novel as a necessary restorative, a way of giving men back their souls when the sordid financial world threatens to suffocate them.
All in all this is a highly enjoyable novel, a perfect holiday read. My only quibble was that, after all I’ve heard about the bankers and the crash, Cartwright lets his characters off very lightly in the end, rather as if he had grown too fond of them over the creative process to punish them severely. I could have stood to see a bit more retribution. But there is also another truth here, that banks are protected species, and the dangers inherent in their collapse means that lawyers and governments mobilise fast to kick dust over the traces. And for all that he pulls his punches in the closing sections of the novel, Cartwright does manage to end on an utterly charming surprise that made me laugh. If only our real life economic troubles could be so elegantly managed…
[Just in case anyone is interested, the non-fiction books Mister Litlove has been reading are: How Markets Fail by John Cassidy, All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Banking Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, and Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World by Nicholas Shaxson.]