Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent opens with a man attacking his wife. Why phenomenally successful children’s author Oliver Ryan has suddenly beat his wife Alice into a coma after decades of apparently peaceful marriage is a mystery – but as Oliver and those around him gradually start to tell his story, it soon becomes clear that Oliver’s life has been cobbled together from lies and deceit almost from the day he was born.

Set primarily in Dublin, Unravelling Oliver is neatly structured and has a somewhat confessional tone that seems entirely appropriate for a novel in which most of the characters’ lives are affected one way or another by the strong influence of the Catholic Church. We hear from Oliver himself, from his old college friend Michael and Michael's sister Laura, with whom Oliver had a brief relationship. There’s Veronique, at whose vineyard in rural France Oliver was the witness to a terrible tragedy and Barney, a neighbour from whom Oliver managed to win Alice’s affections in the first place. In a particularly heartbreaking chapter, there’s even Eugene, Alice’s brother who has severe learning difficulties and whose company Oliver finds intolerable. Every character knows something of Oliver, but none of them know everything, and it’s only as the different threads of his story are disentangled that we finally see how the life Oliver has carefully constructed for himself was built up and then destroyed.

Handsome and superficially charming, Oliver is an adept deceiver; throughout the novel, it’s only the reader to whom Oliver tells the truth, and even then, he times his reveals carefully. However, while he certainly has many traits of a psychopath, what we learn of his childhood certainly brings up the nature versus nurture debate and forces our sympathies to shift significantly at certain points. It’s a clever strategy on the author's part, and one that makes Oliver a far more complex character than the pantomime villain he could have become in the hands of a lesser writer.

Each of the characters in Unravelling Oliver has their own distinctive voice, and even Alice, silenced by Oliver in the opening lines and noted by others to be somewhat passive and mousy, seems wholly three-dimensional. The chapters narrated by the supporting characters help us to build a picture of Oliver and offer up some interesting observations on Ireland’s social history, but they also mean that we don’t have to spend the whole book inside Oliver’s head – which, frankly, is a dark and unsettling place to be, and would become too intense and oppressive were his point-of-view chapters not interspersed with those of other people.

This is a short book, barely over 200 pages, and like Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal, it's an extremely readable novel full of tension that also has a satisfying depth and thoughtfulness to it: if you were the type of person who makes a distinction between 'literary fiction' and 'thrillers' you could comfortably place this in the former category.  Apparently this is Liz Nugent’s first novel: I’m already looking forward to reading more from her.

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