Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Originally published in 2014

Oliver Ryan has the perfect life. Elegant and seductive, he wants for nothing, sharing a lovely home with his steadfast wife, Alice, who illustrates the award-winning children’s books that have brought him wealth and fame. Until one evening, after eating the dinner Alice has carefully prepared, Oliver savagely assaults her and leaves her for dead.

But why?

The people who know Oliver can only speculate about the reasons behind his brutal act: his empty-headed mistress Moya, vain and petulant; Veronique, the French chatelaine who tragically lost everything the summer she employed him in her vineyard; Alice’s friend Barney, who has nursed an unrequited love for her since childhood; Oliver’s college pal Michael, struggling with voiceless longings that have shamed him for years. What none of them understands is the dark secret that lies behind his immaculate façade.

The revelations that come to light as the layers of Oliver’s past are peeled away are as brutal as his singular act of violence. His decades of careful deception have masked a life irrevocably marked by abandonment, envy, and shame—and as the details of that life are laid bare, Oliver discovers that outrunning his demons is harder than it looks.

Oliver Ryan’s fantasy stories for children are beloved by millions around the world. They have been adapted for stage and screen, bringing him fame and fortune. He is an attractive figure, regarded by those who meet him as charming, eloquent and elegant.

Yet one night after enjoying a dinner prepared by Alice, his wife of many years who illustrates his stories, he savagely beats her to a point near death. We are told that he was sober and that this was the first time he had ever behaved violently with her. While he claims to have been provoked we have little information as to what prompted this psychotic episode which appears so out of character for him other than she had broken open the lock on a wooden box ‘in which [he] locked away [his] darkest secrets’.

Unraveling Oliver is an example of the whydunnit, a form of inverted mystery in which we know what was done and by whom but we are unsure of the motive. Nugent tells her story not just from Oliver’s own perspective but also from that of those who knew him, both in the past as well as at the time of the attack.

The decision to tell at least part of the story from Oliver’s own voice is not a comfortable one given what he has done, though I think it is probably necessary if only to demonstrate that Oliver himself isn’t entirely sure of the reason for his crime. When he declares ‘It turns out that I am a violent man after all’ he notes that he finds this surprising because whatever other faults he acknowledged in himself, he would never have thought of himself in that way. He quickly acknowledges though that it clearly is the case and so his chapters feel like a structured delve into his past as he connects experiences and reflects on how he got to that point.

While the other characters tend to like Oliver, even when he doesn’t treat them well, the reader is unlikely to feel the same. It’s not just our knowledge of how his relationship with Alice will end, though clearly that is a huge factor too, but for his other, earlier cruelties towards the other characters we hear from. He may never have beaten Alice before the incident at the start of the book but he clearly harmed her and those around him in other ways.

In addition to the chapters told in Oliver’s own voice, there are chapters told by those friends and acquaintances who knew him and want to understand the horrific nature of the events of that night. Their accounts explore early instances and try to tease out signs that something was wrong with Oliver. It becomes clear however that no one voice possesses all the answers.

These accounts, which jump backwards and forwards in time, often overlap to provide us with some new detail or piece of information that can shift how you viewed the events described. At times one character may describe an event and several chapters later a different character provides information about its context. The consequence of this approach is that the circumstances of the crime come into focus the more you read and by the end of the novel we should have a clear answer to the question ‘why’.

I think it is important, given the nature of the event this book centers on, to stress that this novel is not about justifying Oliver’s action. Throughout the novel it is clear that Alice is clearly the victim and that whatever else we learn, we will never be asked to compromise on that point. While we come to understand Oliver well by the end of the novel and may comprehend the forces and events that made him as he is, we are never asked to forgive him.

Oliver’s personal history is both mysterious and interesting. I felt that Nugent did a good job of pacing her revelations. In most chapters there is usually some event that will help us understand him a little better with some of the best feeling quite revelatory as though suddenly we have got a much better measure of the man. That feeling builds strongly as we near the novel’s conclusion and while we know how this story will end, there is a very grim fascination in realizing exactly what Oliver’s darkest secrets are and recognizing why he guards them so fiercely.

There are eight perspectives in all and while none are bad, some were significantly more interesting to me than others. Stanley, for instance, only narrates one short chapter and while I think his inclusion as a character who can recognize Oliver both before and after his experiences from school, I do not think the content of his chapter is particularly memorable. Philip’s chapter on the other hand fills in some blanks about the characters and circumstances of Oliver’s childhood but though interesting, those reveals were not particularly surprising.

Eugene on the other hand fares much better in his only chapter. This character, Alice’s adult brother who has a severe intellectual disability, tries to understand what he witnesses through his often naive and limited conception of relationships. The result is the most distinctive and sympathetic voice in the novel. It produces some of the clearest insights into Oliver’s character and the cruelty he exhibits towards others, even if Eugene doesn’t always recognize it.

An aspect of the book that did strike me was how almost all of the perspectives used are from male characters. Just six out of the twenty four chapters are narrated by the novel’s two female narrators. Both characters have points of interest, particularly Véronique whose history with Oliver dates back to a working holiday he took to her chateau many years before the point at which this novel begins. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that one voice that is missing is Alice’s own. That makes logistical sense given that this story is narrated some time after the events of that night and clearly, given she is in a coma, she cannot reflect like the others. Yet while we learn a lot about Oliver’s emotions, Alice remains rather enigmatic and much harder to comprehend.

The novel adopts a rather slow and deliberate pace and there are times where the choice to structure this as an overlapping series of accounts leads to a some moments of repetition within the text. Still, this does not happen too often and I did find the book offered some interesting and thoughtful discussions on topics like the family, racism and classism.

I had been a little concerned that this would prove a challenging read based on its upsetting premise. Happily Nugent does a solid job of creating an interesting set of characters to base the story around. Though the story can be quite heavy in tone, I think that the central characters are interesting and that the scenario only becomes more so as the book develops.

The Verdict: A thoughtful, if rather slow-paced, exploration of a man’s character and history.

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