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The self-limiting factors in women examined

Sue Leonard talks to Dublin convent girl Aifric Campbell about her new book, her career as a banker and her new life as a writer and an academic

On the Floor
Aifric Campbell
Serpent’s Tail, €14.99;
Kindle, €9.89

IN April 1999, Aifric Campbell flew to New York on business for Morgan Stanley. Life was wonderful. A new mum, she’d just been made a managing director. Whilst there though, extreme stress sparked a breakdown. She got back to London, but spent the next nine weeks in a psychiatric hospital.

"It was devastating," she says, when we meet at Brooke’s Hotel to discuss her third novel, On the Floor. "It was post-natal depression, and was really bleak."
There was the loss of time to bond with baby Oscar. There was public humiliation. And there was guilt. But the worst, and perhaps most ironic thing, was that once she told her story in the press, she became a poster girl for why women shouldn’t work.

"It astonished me," she says. "I ended up on all these websites. Even an Islamic website which said ambition was dangerous. That link between achievement and risk is always unhelpful. And most of the stuff is written by women."

Assumptions about women in work have always bothered Aifric.

"There’s so much talk about glass ceilings and men as obstacles to women, and that wasn’t my experience when I worked in a man’s world. But women are set up to think of themselves as being agents of guilt. They do it to each other and society does it to them. You can’t pick up a magazine without being told how to live."

Set in the world of banking, On the Floor is a good, literary read. It centres on Geri Molloy, who, like Aifric, is a major player at a London investment bank. Underlying her huge success, she’s a mess. Neither eating nor sleeping, she’s drinking way too much.

"She’s hiding from the truth," says Aifric. "She’s trying to take control of her own life. This one, like all my books, is about the shadow of the past on the present. That’s what interests me. Often your family of origin leaves a legacy, and that’s what I’m exploring.

"I was also examining the self-limiting factors in women. Why would a woman who is mathematically gifted, and has huge success, allow her life to be controlled by men? By her ex-boyfriend, who she can’t get over; by her boss, her main client, and, it seems, any man who comes along. That was what intrigued me. And it wasn’t," she stresses, "my story. The pressure is really self-generated."

It’s a wonderful look into the financial world of the nineties; a time before banking became ruled by scientists and geeks.

"The 1980’s was the very beginning of that. We had the combination of technology and greed. When I started on the markets, people wrote down their trades by hand. But once quantitative analysis entered the business, the tone changed. It created the ability to put on really large trades. And in that, lay the seeds of disaster that have since unfolded. It was an important time. I remember it well.

"The people who create technology don’t always see the consequences. It’s like the scientists who celebrated when news came about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then their attitude changed. It’s up to the people managing technology to understand the dangers. But there was a failure of management. I set the book, very deliberately at that moment. It was a turning point in history, and it’s not referred to in the media now.

These days, life is good for Aifric. She lives in Sussex with her husband and son. Since leaving banking she’s gained a PhD, and she now teaches creative writing, part-time, at Imperial College London. Her first two books garnered much praise, and, since we spoke, On the Floor has been long-listed for the Orange Prize.

How though did Aifric, a Dublin convent girl, end up in a bank? Especially when her original ambition was to become a vet. It was a long, roundabout route. And it all started with a boy she fancied, who was learning Swedish.

"I started learning Swedish, but he was in a different class and had a Swedish girlfriend! One day though, my teacher said he had a friend in Sweden who wanted an au pair. I’d failed to get the points for medicine, and wanted to leave Ireland, so I went. And I attended university there, and ended up with a first class degree.

"In London, I applied for forty jobs and got two interviews. One was as a British Airways air hostess, and the other was at the stock exchange. I knew nothing about finance, but I very soon picked it up. Morgan Stanley were expanding into Europe at the time, and I got caught up in it.

"Finance is talked about by arts people as if it’s something boring and grubby, but in fact it’s like working in news. If you’re working in the international markets you’re in a continually changing world. And you have to be creative about the solutions you find for different financial requirements. I enjoyed it, but it was tremendously challenging."

All this time, Aifric had been writing. She’d started as a child, and she wrote two novels that she never showed anyone. Another was given to an agent, who was impressed enough to get the interest of a publisher.

"But they wanted me to rewrite it, and I felt I’d finished with that novel," she says.

The end of the novel sees Geri at a turning point in her life.

"There are moments in everyone’s life that are totally transformative." What are the points in Aifric’s life?

"Having my breakdown was one. Another was the first time I went out to Sweden at seventeen. Women had great jobs there. That’s when I realised that every notion you have about being female is all in your head. Coming from Ireland in those days, I saw that basically it is all down to you. If things didn’t happen for you it was down to your lack of ambition."

Her biggest transformative moment, though, came 13 years ago, when Oscar was born.

"I remember that first night, when my husband, Ian, had gone home. I was looking at Oscar through the bassinet, and I realised that was the moment that my life changed forever. You suddenly fall in love and think life will never be the same again, and of course it isn’t. You will never again be one. There’s that extra presence.

"Of course you forget that when you are rung up, as I was this morning by your son saying, ‘where is my jumper?’" She laughs. "And I said, ‘you do realise I’m in Dublin.’ But those pivotal moments give you great insight."

It’s that insight she’s keen to hand on to the reader.

"To me, the act of writing stories is redemptive. It’s like a vote of confidence in humanity. My characters have some issue in the past they are trying to get over. And the solution always lies in breaking free from the past or from a crisis. The past can be got over. It can be survived."