Kate Jennings's second novel, about a poor, smart woman with high ideals who goes to work for a Wall Street investment bank, might, at first, seem familiar from Hollywood films such as Working Girl or Wall Street. Is this just another tale of money being, in Wallace Stevens's matchless phrase, "a kind of magic"; another syrupy satire that is seduced by its subject? In fact, Moral Hazard blends, quite remarkably, the life of a freelance writer navigating the PR system of the financial world with that of a devoted wife desperate to buy the best care she can for a beloved husband suffering from Alzheimer's. It sounds trashy, but it isn't.
One can only speculate as to how much of the book is autobiographical: Jennings, like her heroine, Cath, is an Australian who worked as a speech-writer in several Wall Street banks during the early 1990s, and Moral Hazard suggests the rage of experience. As with Michael Lewis's Liar's Poker, much enjoyment derives from filtering grotesques of greed and fear through an ironic, discrete intelligence - in particular, a female one. On Wall Street, Cath reflects, women are about as welcome as fleas in a sleeping bag, but those who enjoy positive discrimination believe they make their way by their own merit. Their condescension to other women is obnoxious. Cath, an old-style feminist who fought the good fight, is trapped. By day, she lives one kind of nightmare, realising that the bankers are corrupt as well as stupid, "subject to fashion and flattery, and incapable of objectivity or seeing the larger picture as ordinary mortals". By night, she has to cope with her husband's increasing deterioration.
Again, those familiar with John Bayley's controversial depiction of Iris Murdoch's decline may believe that this is well-trodden territory, but Jennings's crisp prose conveys pain beyond honesty. (Murdoch's affliction is referred to and, significantly, Cath's husband is called Bailey.) Cath learns "the obvious. Without memory, we are nothing." She turns herself from lover to mother to despairing caretaker, relinquishing the struggle to look after him herself as her strength is eroded. He repeatedly tries to escape from the nursing home where she deposits him, and he writes heartbreaking notes asking for her. The stench, the lunacy, the loneliness look as if they will be ended by pneumonia, but modern antibiotics cure this. As the Wall Street bank steps ever closer to disaster, Cath is forced to confront the final choice that carers of those with Alzheimer's must make.
This is an extraordinary novel: pleasurable and powerful, mordant and harrowing. Like Christina Stead, Jennings is an Australian whose native wit is combined with the energy of America - let's hope that, unlike Stead, her talent is recognised. As a distillation in 175 pages of what it took James Buchan's novel about money three times as long to say, Moral Hazard will be appreciated by those inside the financial world and by those who try to ignore it. Cath bears tremendous strain as a creation; the superimposition of Alzheimer's on to banking is less successful artistically, however. Although there are parallels in the way Wall Street, like Cath, ultimately saves its own bacon, what has threatened it is not the erosion of personality and morality, but the intellectual stagnation and downright corruption of the right. One wants them to be punished - but that only happens in Hollywood.
Amanda Craig is a novelist and critic