This was one of the first Orange Prize nominees that I bought.

Last year, two debut novels on the longlist made my personal shortlist. (Anna Peile‘s and Samantha Hunt‘s)

Serpent’s Tail, 2012

I had high hopes for this novel and, in many ways, I was rewarded for my enthusiasm.

(This is not her debut novel, but she is a new-to-me author and her work is difficult to find overseas.)

On the Floor immediately immerses the reader in the life of Geri Mollay in 1986 on the trading floor of the London market.

“Here’s how it goes: the moment of my becoming.”

In less than four pages, the becoming is over.

Then, it’s 1991. Geri has become.

She is simultaneously living in the past, in that single cystallized moment, and in the front-edge of the present, on the cusp of the future, inhabiting fierce moments of action that, bizarrely, feel larger-than-life and lifeless at the same time.

Virtually none of the trade-specific vocabulary of the financial world makes sense to me.

The words are recognizable, but they have no context for me, and, yet, Aifric Campbell carries me along in Geri’s moment.

This is the heart of the novel, these first few pages, the reader’s only glimpse of clarity for Geri.

The remainder of the novel cycles away from that moment, the arc increasingly expansive as the pages turn.

Soon it becomes almost impossible to believe that this moment ever existed.

“…Felix told me I was to apply myself as I was leaving his office on — when? Friday and a lifetime ago. But I have not applied myself one little jot and he will use this as further evidence of my accelerating decline. There is only one way down from the pinnacle of success and that is a nosedive into oblivion.”

Even on page 36, I realized that this was going to be a tedious story. Not because Aifric Campbell does not write it well, but because she does write it well.

She creates it wholly and vividly from this damaged and struggling perspective, perhaps a perspective that is all too common in a world which operates on such precarious and heightened moments.

And it’s true: there is something addictive about the pace of events in this novel, in the atmosphere that pervades Geri’s life.

Readers can spot it even in that short quote, the interrupted sentence structure, the melodramatic swell of “Friday and a lifetime”, the intelligent discourse twinned with a harsh matter-of-fact-ness.

Geri’s world is not a welcoming place: the sexism is rampant (a co-worker who watches a snuff film is congratulated for it), the materialism is a core value, and the meaning of ‘competitive’ is something else entirely beyond the everyday use of the word.

I’m positive Geri would be offended by this shade

“But how could you not fall in love with this world where there is so much happening, where everything can change in the next moment? With foreknowledge you forego the thrill, life is no more than a fixed match. So what would I have chosen to know in advance? Stephen’s decision to cut me loose? But deep down I knew it was coming. I just hoped it could be delayed for as long as possible.” (58)

And the reader knows, too, that it’s coming. A breaking point is coming for Geri.

The nation is embroiled in the Gulf War even while the chaos in Geri’s life is couched in inactivity and malaise, in alcohol and denial.

“I should say sorry, I know, I should make some gesture of reparation but for now I will just add that to the whole stinking heap of things that I should do with my life.” (75)

She is overwhelmed on every level of her existence and, yet, there are moments inserted for the reader’s benefit (her friendship with Vanna and her love for her dog, Rex) as reminders that what is now mostly a shell of an existence was, once, fleshed out in ways that existed beyond that brief shining moment which opens the novel.

But the reward for a reader’s enthusiasm for this novel is bittersweet; the more credible Aifric Campbell’s depiction of Geri’s world in On the Floor, the less the reader wants to inhabit it. (The author was apparently a former merchant banker.)

As a study of what a woman’s life in the financial sector in the ’80s and ’90s, as a consideration of what personal sacrifices are required for professional success in a sphere which does not acknowledge the value of a personal life, the novel is revealing. But, for all its success, it remains a sad story.

Nonetheless, the author does offer the reader the choice to view the ending from more than one perspective; despite the fact that Geri doesn’t often say she’s sorry, the reader knows she is sorry and wants to imagine her falling in love with a different kind of world.

Maybe I should accept that, given what we’ve seen of Geri in this novel, it’s not likely. But, then again, I could take a note from her, and I could just delay that realization for as long as possible.

Click image for Jill’s OJ

What did you think of this novel?
Are you still reading Orange Prize novels too?
Were you reading for Orange July?

ORANGE Prize Nominee 2012: Book 8 of 20
Aifric Campbell’s On the Floor 

Originality  A woman in the financial sector: working hard and well
Readability  Despite gobs of industry-speak, quite tightly paced
Author’s voice  Consistent and unflagging: Geri is unequivocally Geri
Narrative structure  Chronological in theory, backstory dispensed throughout the segments
Gaffes A few typos, which is sometimes distracting
Expectations Relatively low-profile contender, but Sepent’s Tail has a great reputation for feminist storytelling