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by Liz Nugent
Scout, August 2017
260 pages
ISBN: 1501167758

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The opening chapter of UNRAVELING OLIVER, in the voice of the titular character, is a shocker. To condense its nine pages:

I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her....I was surprised. I hadn't planned to do it....I certainly wasn't drunk....The second time I hit Alice, I just couldn't stop. I am very sorry about that indeed....It turns out that I am a violent man after all....What will the neighbors think? What will anybody think? I really couldn't care less.

Here we have what might be called the thesis statement of this original and compulsively readable debut by Irish writer Liz Nugent. Oliver Ryan is a hugely successful writer of children's books under the pseudonym Victor Dax. What could have compelled him, a man with no apparent previous history of violence, to hit his wife twice on the same night, the second time putting her in hospital in a persistent vegetative state? Nugent marshals seven witnesses to speak directly to the reader as they recount what they remember about Oliver. Along the way, Oliver also addresses us in the same head-on style. Two characters whose testimony would be vital are absent, however. These are Alice, Oliver's victim, and Laura, who had an affair with him years before and who is now dead.

Readers have become familiar with (and perhaps a bit tired of) the unreliable narrator as a staple of current crime fiction. UNRAVELING OLIVER is the reverse - the seven witnesses are thoroughly reliable, though none of them have all the facts. It is the object of their testimony, Oliver, who is, if not exactly unreliable, at least reluctant to reveal certain facts about himself that would explain much. Each of the witnesses steps up as though looking directly into a camera to remember their experience of Oliver from his schooldays to a highly charged summer in France some twenty years before to more recent days. Only one of them, Stanley, who speaks just once, remembers his schoolmate, Oliver, with sympathy.

The rest of them tell their stories in brief chapters, interspersed with one another and frequently interrupted by Oliver's contributions. It is a risky tactic as none of the characters interact with any of the others except as they may appear in a reminiscence. There is virtually no direct dialogue. Nevertheless, as the witnesses speak our comprehension of Oliver grows and we are reluctant to put the book down as we get closer to understanding what makes this particular sociopath what he is.

In short, this shouldn't work but it does and very well indeed. Despite the limitations imposed by its structure, Nugent manages to reflect the evolution of Irish attitudes toward women, homosexuality, race, religion, and gender over the last thirty-odd years in succinct but telling ways. It was named Crime Novel of the Year by the Irish Book awards for very good reasons.

And in the end, to her credit, Nugent does not unravel Oliver completely. We are left knowing more about him, but his existential evil remains, as it must, essentially inexplicable.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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