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Saturday 27 June 2015

‘Unravelling Oliver’ by Liz Nugent

Published by Penguin,
29 April 2015.
ISBN: 978-0-241-96564-1 (PB)

If I might be allowed to paraphrase Shakespeare – some are born sociopathic, some achieve sociopathic tendencies, and some have sociopathy thrust upon them.

Oliver Ryan, the black heart of Liz Nugent’s powerful debut psychological thriller, reveals himself as a sociopath in the first chapter – possibly even the explosive first line – and elements of all three become evident as the narrative progresses.

Oliver is locked up in a secure psychiatric unit, having beaten Alice, his wife of many years, into a coma. That’s not a spoiler; it’s where the book begins. The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks recounted from several points of view, all in the first person, and each voice and character distinct, including Alice’s mentally handicapped brother, whose chapter almost reduced me to tears. Alice herself is unconscious throughout, and therefore gets no say, but she nevertheless has a presence and a personality.

The true extent of the corrupt – or corrupted – soul which lies under Oliver’s sophisticated charm is revealed a little at a time, as each person adds his or her own account of an incidence of cruelty or abuse to the developing jigsaw of his past and Oliver himself seeks to justify his behaviour. That no one quite knows what goes on in someone else’s relationship is something of a truism; here the axiom is not only illustrated, but extended to show that sometimes not even the people in the relationship quite know what’s going on.

The action moves between Ireland and France, and one of Liz Nugent’s skills is the creation of subtle differences in atmosphere and tone which underlie the physical descriptions. A dour boarding school, seedy bedsits, wealthy and less rich homes all contribute to a vividly realized background, along with a chateau and vineyard, each with its own ambience.

Another of Nugent’s talents is the deft way she makes the apparently disconnected pieces of the story fit together in a way which ultimately create a complete and satisfying explanation of how the events in that attention-seizing opening chapter came about. It’s an explanation with its share of twists; and it’s not an excuse – there can be no excuse for the behaviour which emerges, either that night or in the years before. But the critic quoted on the cover who called it ‘a compelling whydunnit’ has hit the nail on the head.

A lot of good writing has come out of Ireland, and Liz Nugent is another name to add to that growing list of authors. Unravelling Oliver cannot be other than a standalone, but I look forward to whatever she does next.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Liz Nugent was born in Dublin in 1967. Liz has worked in Irish film, theatre and television for most of her adult life. She is an award-winning writer of radio and television drama and has written short stories for children and adults. Unravelling Oliver is her first novel.                             

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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