What if politics wasn’t such a cynical business, dedicated to perpetuating power dynamics and maintaining the status quo, while talking ceaselessly about progress and change? That’s the situation Sean Moncrieff dares to dream up in his fascinating novel The Angel of the Streetlamps.
A woman falls to her death from a high window on a Dublin street, as she falls her foot knocks an election poster from a telephone pole, which then lands on her broken body, thus ensuring it’s in all the news coverage. A junkie runs from the building, leaps into a taxi, and flees the scene. The politician whose poster this was becomes tarnished by association, and the party consider her unelectable. A passing priest become a media celebrity after he gives the dying woman the last rites. These characters are a powerful canvas on which Moncrieff paints a perceptive portrait of contemporary Ireland.
The politician, Rachel Belton, the clever wife of a famous sportsman with embarrassing spiritual beliefs, decides she has nothing to lose by abandoning the stale talking points the party hacks demand, and begins to tell the truth, to reveal her true feelings. The media and public love her unvarnished honesty.
The junkie, who may or may not be responsible for the woman’s death, flees to his mother’s house, and the daughter he has abandoned. The taxi driver, a loner, decides the junkie is clearly a murderer, and turns vigilante. The priest, who has long since lost his faith, becomes repulsed by the religious sycophants who now consider him something of a hero by-association. A washed-up journalist, who was the dead girl’s cousin, tries to resurrect her career by making the most of her family connections to the story.
It’s a delicious stew of compromised characters in a pressure-cooker environment. Some are pursuing material success without a thought for the cost, while others begin to rue the consequences of their decisions. The novel is a wicked satire of a media frenzy — something the author, a journalist and radio presenter, knows only too well.
Moncrieff is an astute observer of Irish life, nailing the uncertainty and confusion that followed the end of the boom times, and laying into the media with gusto. Politicians get short shrift, as the emptiness of party politics is laid bare against the appealing, but ultimately doomed, campaign of idealism and honesty. He’s not a harsh judge, however, betraying a clear sympathy for the hardworking, the honest, and the low-on-the-totem-pole: the idealistic political volunteer, flawed priests, and ordinary people caught up in the rat race.
Our politician, Rachel Belton, is a great character: a very intelligent women raised in the heart of working-class, Northside Dublin, she escaped first through studying secretly and then by building up a career as a model. After becoming far more famous than she wanted through a “reality” TV show, she left Ireland to do an MBA in New York, and now is trying to convert the remains of her former fame into votes so she can enter politics. However, doing so raises many questions of class and culture, which she then has to carefully navigate. But, other characters get equal “screen time,” and Michael Bourke, the priest who’s lost his faith, and Carol Murphy, the journalist who’s crossed so many lines and moral boundaries in her work that she doesn’t even know where the lines are anymore, are probably the most memorable.
Finally, there’s the victim, whose death sparks a media frenzy that changes lives. Manda Ferguson, a naive, confused young women drawn to utopian ideals, who has given herself the quixotic task of living beside a drug dealer’s flat in the hope of talking some of the addicts out of their addiction. Her rootless life and senseless death brings to mind Joyce’s declaration that “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow,” but this line of thinking isn’t fully investigated in the novel, as we mostly get to know Manda through the recollections and opinions of others.
The Angel of the Streetlamps is something of a human comedy more than a hard-boiled crime drama. It is a page-turner, although this is not your conventional murder mystery. In the end it’s a thoughtful, large-canvas look at the Irish psyche circa the start of the latest economic downturn: compromised, frantically struggling to stay afloat, and having largely forgotten why they made some of the decisions they did. It’s not a totally hopeless, dark portrayal, as there are hardworking characters who keep their perspective and their goals in sight, but it is a deliciously scathing portrait of media and political dysfunction.