Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Unravelling Oliver

Winner of the IBA Crime Fiction Book of the Year 2014 – I had this one on my list for AGES so when I saw it become available through NetGalley I had to request it. Huge thanks to the publisher for approving my request.

What a deliciously disturbing and uncomfortable read it turned out to be…

What the blurb says:

Oliver Ryan is a handsome and charismatic success story. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, Alice, who illustrates his award-winning children’s books and gives him her unstinting devotion. Their life together is one of enviable privilege and ease – enviable until, one evening after supper, Oliver attacks Alice and beats her into a coma.

In the aftermath, as everyone tries to make sense of his astonishing act of savagery, Oliver tells his story. So do those whose paths he has crossed over five decades. What unfolds is a story of shame, envy, breath-taking deception and masterful manipulation.

Only Oliver knows the lengths to which he has had to go to get the life to which he felt entitled. But even he is in for a shock when the past catches up with him.

There are a number of strands to this narrative – all of them utterly compelling. On the one hand we hear from Oliver himself; we are party to his deepest, darkest thoughts and motivations. And oh boy, are they deep and dark. On the other hand, we hear from various important people from Oliver’s past and present. It works so beautifully well; these alternative perspectives paint such a vastly different view of Oliver and raise so many questions about the nature of self and an individual’s ability to ‘play a part’. What is real and what is not? The title is absolutely perfect: ‘I find it so difficult to believe what is being said and written about Oliver… the person they are describing … is not the boy I knew’.

This novel is no slow starter and the writing is absolutely chilling at times. The voice of Oliver is so matter of fact, especially considering the seriousness of the subject matter: ‘My wife had finally brought out the worst in me. It was most unexpected. I had always been fond of her, in my way. She was a marvellous cook, for example, after all the gourmet cuisine courses I made sure she attended. Also, she could be very athletic in bed, which was nice’.

You realise immediately that Oliver is never going to be a character you like, admire or respect. That is not the point of the novel at all. I would even go so far as to say he has absolutely no redeeming qualities. That said, his voice is written in such a way that you simply can’t help wanting to read more. You want to understand why: ‘Alice’s mother died suddenly in 1986… Thanks be to God. I can’t stand old people’. His honesty is completely brutal and as such, completely fascinating.

As the narrative develops, moving backwards and forwards in time, we gradually begin to come to some sort of understanding: ‘We knew that he had no mother and assumed that she was dead… but the most awful thing was that Oliver’s home was less than a mile from the school and he seemed to be forbidden from entering it’. The reader can’t help but be drawn into consideration of the nature versus nurture debate. How much is Oliver a product of circumstance, neglect and tragedy?

It’s hard to imagine that the story will deal with events even more serious than the beating of his wife, but as we travel through the five decades of Oliver’s life we are immersed in a world where tragedy follows hot on the heels of tragedy.

This is not a happy book. Nor is it at all light-hearted. Despite it being relatively short at 240 pages, it is not a quick read – or at least it wasn’t for me. It deals with such uncomfortable issues, in such an uncomfortable, unflinching way, that I had to read it in short bursts. It’s written so incredibly well however, there was never any danger of me not wanting to finish it. I HAD to know how it ended and I have nothing but respect for the way Liz Nugent gets into the head of such a damaged individual.

A truly incredible read that will stay with me for a long, long time. I just couldn’t believe it was a debut.

The novel is available on kindle: Unravelling Oliver

And paperback: Unravelling Oliver


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