I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

I Let You Go

As soon as I finished this book, I tweeted: ‘Wow. Now I have to find the words to review this in more than that one word’. I’ve left it a few days and the story is still firmly with me.

What the blurb says:

A tragic accident. It all happened so quickly. She couldn’t have prevented it. Could she?

In a split second, Jenna Gray’s world is shattered. Her only hope of moving on is to walk away from everything she knows to start afresh. Desperate to escape her past, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of the cruel November night that changed her life for ever.

DI Ray Stevens is tasked with seeking justice for a mother who is living every parent’s worst nightmare. Determined to get to the bottom of the case, it begins to consume him as he puts both his professional and personal life on the line.

As Ray and his team seek to uncover the truth, Jenna, slowly, begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her and the consequences will be devastating . . .

Which rather cleverly (and from the perspective of someone who has now finished it), actually tells you everything and nothing all at once. At more than one point in this novel I thought I knew what I was reading and what was coming; each time I was wrong.

This novel just breaks all the rules – brilliantly and over and over again! I couldn’t put it down, despite the fact (and probably partly because) it is an intensely uncomfortable read for a variety of reasons. The first of which becomes clear very early on in the story and which I am therefore going to tell you about; I promise it will be the ONLY spoiler in this review.

The story opens with the tragic accident referred to in the blurb: ‘hit-and-run in Fishponds, guv. Five-year-old boy killed’. If, like me, you routinely avoid novels that might make you feel sad, I promise you won’t regret giving this one a go. Although the accident is the catalyst for the novel, there are SO many layers to this story: ‘I’ve told him more than I ever intended to, but I can’t tell him everything. If I do, he’ll leave, and I’ll have no one to stop me from falling’. Sooooo many questions!

Initially, the story moves between that of DI Stevens and his team investigating the accident, and that of those involved with Jacob (the five year old boy) himself. The police sections (ironically) serve as a palate cleanser in-between the faster-paced, higher-tension parts of the story. Don’t get me wrong, there are tensions there too:”‘Ray, you said no work!’ Ray was confused. ‘But the kids are in bed.’ ‘Yes, but I’m –‘Mags stopped…”. But without this part of the story, the reader would quite probably be holding their breath continually…

I honestly can’t remember the last novel I read that was comparable in terms of emotional experience. I felt all the same emotions as Jenna, deeply and compellingly. From grief: ‘Such a small impact on the world, yet the very centre of my own… The grief I feel is so physical it seems impossible that I am still living’; to anger and disgust: ‘You can’t do anything by yourself, Jennifer’; to guilt: ‘Each time a wave of fear hits me, I remind myself what I did, and that I have no right to be frightened’; and finally, complete and utter fear: ‘I will find you… Wherever you’ve gone to, I’ll find you. And then I will come for you’. Just imagine welcoming the idea of Prison, simply for the security and safety it provides. Chilling.

Later on in the story, the narrative is split further between Jenna and Ian, her husband. I would love to ask Clare Mackintosh whether writing Ian’s parts in the first person were as difficult to imagine and write as they are for the reader to read? Just incredible – infuriating, jarring and brutally honest.

I can’t talk in specifics about themes and events without spoiling the story, so I won’t. Suffice it to say, this novel will NOT let you go. Just read it.

‘You must remember that he was a boy. That he had a mother. And that her heart is breaking’.

I Let You Go on Kindle: I Let You Go

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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