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Book facts
On the Floor
by Aifric Campbell
(Picador)
250 pages, $26

Insider’s context informs debut

The first chapter of Aifric Campbell’s debut, “On the Floor,” is the literary equivalent of a movie filmed with a hand-held camera. The action is choppy, it’s hard to get your bearings and you’re left with the uncomfortable sensation of having missed something important.

But the setup is clear – and, ultimately, hard to resist. Whip-smart 20-something Geri Molloy is an investment banker at Steiner’s, a fictional but realistically cutthroat firm based in London. It’s 1991, and the traders are bracing for the effects of the war looming in the Mideast. Geri’s boss dispatches her on a high-stakes reconnaissance mission to Hong Kong, where she will meet with Felix Mann, a Machiavellian hedge-fund manager and Steiner’s biggest client. The stress is palpable as she tries to strike a balance between maintaining his trust and getting the results she needs. Even finance-phobic readers will find themselves drawn into the intrigue and high-stakes wheeling and dealing.

“On the Floor” is a tense, highly stylized, sometimes funny/sometimes cruel novel about being an outsider. As one of the few women among the semi-Neanderthals in her office, Geri is well-qualified to co-author a “Rule Book for Wannabe Female Bankers.”

A former managing director at Morgan Stanley, Campbell delivers a “Back to the Future” workplace tour. She also gives readers a window into the challenge of being Irish in England in the early 1990s. This dynamic of being “a Self as defined by the Other,” as she describes it, is a powerful metaphor for Geri’s situation at Steiner’s.

But even when Geri is playing right into Mann’s greedy hands or pining for her former boyfriend Stephen, we know this young woman is a survivor. Not in the sassy, “Oh, snap!” way of so many fictional women who take on the chauvinists and beat them at their own game, but with a depth of self-awareness that makes you wonder what, exactly, forged her drive and ambition. This question is what elevates “On the Floor” from a “work novel” to a mystery – and even, at times, a thriller. Little by little, as Campbell lifts the curtain on Geri’s isolated girlhood and her strained relationship with her parents, we begin to understand what makes her both lonely and limber enough to endure the contortions demanded by Mann and this industry.

While obsessively revisiting the implosion of her four-year relationship with Stephen, Geri wonders whether maybe “there is a hidden code in the final act that will transform the story and reveal its true meaning.”

This is the case with “On the Floor”: The slow-motion, heartfelt denouement puts its early frantic, coldbloodedness in context. Once you’ve had a peek at the bigger picture, you might find it hard to resist the urge to return to begin again – this time knowing the price Geri has paid to be here.

Elisabeth Egan is a freelance writer and editor. She wrote this review for Washington Post Book World.

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