Our book club isn’t straying far from home this month with this first novel from Dublin writer Liz Nugent. The Oliver of the title is a hugely successful children’s author who, as the novel opens, is awaiting trial for an attack which has left his illustrator wife, Alice, in a coma. Oliver narrates much of the novel, along with conversational interjections and speculations from a number of people who shared key points in his life, but for whom Oliver has always remained unknowable. As the reader pieces together the information each character offers they move one step closer to understanding, or at least unravelling, Oliver.
Unravelling Oliver is not a book I would have picked up of my own accord, something which often happens with our book club choices. I’m so unversed in its particular genre that I’m not even fully sure how to label it. The book seller described it as psychological thriller; early blurbs on advance copies compared it to Patricia Highsmith (who I have read, many years ago). However it may be classified, it is certainly readable. Nugent maintains control over the pace of revelations and is careful that none of the narrators outstay their welcome. Each voice contributes to a picture of Oliver, offering clues to his character and motivations without themselves knowing how each piece fits into the larger puzzle. As someone who tunes out at the phrase ‘inside the mind of a killer’, I was glad that Oliver’s story didn’t come directly from him alone. An unreliable narrator at the best of times, Oliver is also egotistical and self-aggrandizing and I found the chapters narrated by him to be the least enjoyable. As with any good mystery, there’s enjoyment to be had in the building tension as the extent of Oliver’s crimes are revealed.
There are a number of strengths to Unravelling Oliver. The suburban Dublin of Oliver and Alice’s life is comfortably recognisable and many of the decisions made by peripheral characters seem credible without being overtly justified. Nodding to her background as a writer for Irish soap opera Fair City, Nugent’s cast of characters are convincing despite their limited ‘screen time’, as the novel moves along snappily through its 230-odd pages, a perfect length for the story being told. There’s a decent balance in tone between conversational/gossipy/confessional and everything is tied up neatly at the end. And, I suppose, therein lies my problem with the novel. In reality, we seldom get to discover exactly why anyone does what they do, if they even know it themselves and my own preferences lie towards a reflection in fiction of that unpleasant fact, rather than having a tidy conclusion with answers to every ‘why?’. There are several other issues which are not to my taste, most noticeably the checklist of issues that writing about 1970s Ireland seems to necessitate (religious boarding schools? check. homophobia? check. unwed mothers? check. unadventurous Irish food? check…) I also prefer a richer prose and a text with a little more breathing space.
But that’s just me. Unravelling Oliver is a first novel, and an impressive debut which I hope finds many readers. I’ve passed my copy on to my mother for an upcoming plane trip and I’m fairly certain she’ll enjoy it. Will I be reading another psychological thriller anytime soon? Hopefully not, but I will be keeping my eye out for whatever Liz Nugent does next.