With the current trend in domestic noir exerting a firm grip on the crime genre at the moment, I must confess that I have started and failed to finish a number of recent offerings. Having recently taken part in the blog tour for Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent, my interest was, however, piqued by this one, reading the first chapter over five days on five blogs. Billed as being similar in style to both Patricia Highsmith and Barbara Vine (two authors that I admire greatly) I did embark on this book with some excitement, so how did it fare?
The book opens with a snapshot of a violent attack by a husband, successful children’s author, Oliver Ryan on his docile wife Alice, who illustrates his aforementioned books. Their marriage has seemingly been one of relative comfort and bliss, so how on earth can such a violent event have come to pass? The novel then takes us back through five decades to chart the events of Oliver’s life, leading up to this point, through his own eyes, and through the viewpoint of other people he encounters along the way. As we become immersed in the formative years and experiences of Oliver Ryan, it turns out that there is much more to him than Alice or others have ever seen, and as his past catches up with him, will we ever truly unravel the mystery of Oliver?
This is a relatively slim read, so much so that I read the book in two sittings, but what Nugent so effectively does throughout the book, is make it practically impossible to put down. With the changing narrative voices, each melds seamlessly together, revealing the mercurial Oliver as a human prism, of different moods and motivations, so you are practically champing at the bit to find out piece by piece as to how his character has been shaped by events. There is a glorious sense of claustrophobia to Nugent’s authorial style, so reminiscent of both Highsmith and Vine, so this comparison is more than justified. Nugent subtly manipulates our perception of Oliver throughout, both in her characterisation of him, and in the reportage of other more empathetic characters that provide a deeper insight into his psyche. The story pivots between Ireland and France (the scene of some particularly unsettling events) as the story of Oliver develops, sweeping us effortlessly from one location to the other. This provides an opportunity for us to see Oliver from all sides be it through his unsettled childhood, his life as a relatively carefree graduate, and his later success as an ostensibly happily married man with a solid career as an author. As each delineation of his life unfolds, with a good dose of human tragedy, his disregard for the feelings of others (particularly potent in his ‘stealing’ of Alice from all round good-egg Barney), and a strong sense of psychopathic leanings in his psyche, Oliver is revealed as a fascinating character, and sure to manipulate your sympathies. The novel also providing an intriguing exploration of the old adage of nature vs nurture, as the harsh reality of Oliver’s gradually familial connections come to light.
I think Liz Nugent is to be congratulated in producing such a well formed, compelling and utterly intriguing psychological thriller, little wonder that reviewers everywhere have been so effusive in their praise. The assured narrative, the engaging cast of characters, the seamless changes of location, and a series of perfectly well-placed reveals, leads to an immensely satisfying read. I heartily recommend this one…