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.

Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

Originally published 2016

My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.

On the surface, Lydia Fitzsimons has the perfect life: married to a respected judge, mother of a beloved son, living in the beautiful house where she was raised. That beautiful house, however, holds a secret. And when Lydia’s son, Laurence, discovers its secret, wheels are set in motion that lead to an increasingly claustrophobic and devastatingly dark climax.

Lying in Wait was an impulse purchase based on nothing more than its first line, helpfully quoted at the start of the blurb. Clearly this would be an inverted crime story and, as we all know, those are my sort of thing…

The story concerns the death of a young woman at the hands of Andrew, a judge. The novel opens in the immediate aftermath of the murder and so we witness how Andrew and his wife respond to the incident but it is some time before we learn exactly how and why it happened. Those initial chapters focus heavily on the cover-up and exploring the ways that murder alters the relationships within the Fitzsimmons and Doyle families. It is only once we delve deeper into characters’ histories that we get a clearer sense of how and why this crime took place.

Liz Nugent tells her story from the perspectives of three different characters involved in this tragic set of events. The first is Lydia, the woman who identifies her husband as the murderer in that first sentence and who witnessed that murder. The second is Karen, the sister of the dead girl. She provides us with the backstory of the victim’s earlier life but later in the novel she falls into an investigative sort of role, trying to find out what happened to Annie. Finally we have Laurence, Lydia’s only son who begins the story as a rather sullen teenager.

Nugent alternates between the various perspectives, often ending a chapter at one point in time, then jumping back a little way to show you the same events (or part of them) from a different perspective. I found this to be an effective technique as it clearly distinguishes what one set of characters know from another, allowing for some moments of dramatic irony as we are aware of information that is unknown to the narrating character and can predict future areas of conflict or problems that may arise for the characters.

The novel is also split into several time periods with the first part of the book set in 1980, the bulk in 1985 while the final few chapters take place in 2016. I think that this allows us to see how this murder has a powerful and lasting impact on the fates of everyone involved. This is most pronounced in the case of the victim’s family but Laurence is a particularly interesting figure as he only has a partial knowledge of what happened for a substantial part of the novel.

I was impressed with Nugent’s implementation of the multiple narrators technique. Each of the three characters have distinct and identifiable personalities and narrative voices. This is particularly clear in the judgments they make of each other and while Karen and Lydia only have limited interactions for much of the story, it is interesting to read how they respond to each other and the judgments they make when they do.

I also respect the depth of characterization that is present, not only in these three characters but also in the others that flesh out their different worlds. I had little difficulty imagining them, particularly the more colorful characters like Laurence’s first girlfriend, Helen and I enjoyed moments where we got to read a different character’s interpretation of that same person. Several of these characters seem to change over the course of the novel, often in response to the murder plot itself, which only makes the time jump more effective.

While I enjoyed each of the three narrative voices, I have a clear favorite: I think the character of Laurence is the most interesting, in part because we have an advantage on him in knowing what he does not. Over the course of the book we not only see Laurence struggle to get out from under the control of his domineering mother but also coming to the realization that his father may have been involved in Annie Doyle’s murder. His responses are interesting, often borne out of a desire to protect his family, and I could understand his decision making, even when some of those choices seemed certain to harm him.

Lydia however is arguably a more familiar and perhaps less nuanced character, although I think she does have an interesting personal history that gets pulled out in later chapters of the novel. Those chapters are well written and contain some of the novel’s most exciting moments, particularly in the last third of the novel, but they also hit some of the more familiar notes and themes, especially in relation to her feelings about her son. Still, those ideas are done well and feel appropriate to the overall development of the story.

In terms of the overall plot, I should probably emphasize that this is more of a crime story than a detective story. While several characters do conduct an investigation that is important to the novel’s plot and the reader can work out how it is likely to end, there are not really many opportunities to play armchair detective. This is much more interested in those character relationships and in figuring out how the central tensions between the three narrators will work out.

It is this aspect of Nugent’s novel that I find most worthy of attention. The story is structured brilliantly and the author brings the different strands together well in the end to deliver a powerful conclusion. I was not really shocked by any aspect of that ending – Nugent establishes the key points very clearly – but there is something quite electrifying in seeing how those ideas come together and witnessing the fallout at the end of the novel.

While there are a few surprising moments, I would suggest that what this novel does best is solidly executing its key dramatic beats to enable the story to change direction, often altering key power dynamics between the characters. I was keen to see how those tensions would resolve and while I felt pretty sure I knew how the book might end, I felt the execution of that ending was quite excellent.

Lying in Wait was my first experience of Liz Nugent’s work but I have to say that I was impressed and plan to investigate more of her stories – I would gladly take any recommendations if people have them. I found her writing style to be engaging and enjoyed the attention she gave to putting her characters in interesting situations and resolving those areas of conflict. It is, in my opinion, a very solid example of a whydunnit and while those answers come fairly early in the text, Nugent does a fine job of exploring the impact of those revelations throughout the rest of the novel.

The Verdict: A very solid example of a whydunnit with several interesting and sympathetic characters. Its greatest strength is in its conclusion which made for compelling reading.