It’s been a long time since a novel’s beginning has arrested my attention as instantly as “Unravelling Oliver.” The opening scene is narrated by a man named Oliver who is standing over his wife Alice. He’s just punched her. It’s terrifying being immediately thrown into the consciousness of a man that’s committed such a violent, cowardly act. His motives remain mysterious and the rest of this short, powerful novel goes on to explain who Oliver is, what he’s hiding and why he has beaten his wife. The chapters flip between the perspectives of Oliver and a group of people who have been associated with him throughout his life to compose a portrait of a man who has committed monstrous acts. While it at no point suggests he should be forgiven for his crimes, the novel conveys a logical path that has led to his selfish acts. The story is skilfully arranged to reveal information slowly with the limited perspective of characters relating different pieces of the puzzle. They don’t always fully appreciate the gravity of the information they hold. I love it when books so cleverly help the reader to understand a story better than the characters involved. It makes for a really gripping read.
There is something almost Dickensian about the story here of a man born in difficult circumstances and emotionally neglected. Through his cunning he achieves fame and fortune, but experiences a downfall from grace when confronted with the truth of his past. Where this novel deviates from that kind of Dickensian structure is that the main protagonist commits an act so heinous it’s excruciatingly hard to feel empathy for him – whereas we can do nothing but feel totally on the side of Great Expectation’s poor little Pip. Because of Oliver’s hard upbringing and fear of being rejected, he feels it necessary to always hide himself and maintain a certain emotion distance from everyone. He remarks at one point: “Friends are just people who remind you of your failings.” The novel conveys that when this man became emotionally isolated from those around him his sympathy floundered and he becomes prone to acting out of total selfishness. This is borne out of a legacy of shame.
Something that really impressed me was how this novel dealt with many kinds of unconventional relationships. There is the fascinating regal French character named Veronique who bears a son in unusual circumstances. A rather self centred actress named Moya thinks herself rather coy in the way she pursues multiple men, but whose motives are much more obvious than she realizes. A repressed gay man named Michael establishes a kinship with Veronique who helps him on the path to self-acceptance and finding a flourishing relationship. Also Oliver and his wife Alice don’t have a traditional partnership. It’s commented that “You don’t have to love a person. You can love the idea of a person.” Of course, this makes for an unstable foundation on which to build a long term relationship. Loving a person for being the person they really are is very different from loving someone as you’d like them to be.
It is striking that although the novel ventures into narrating the point of view of many different characters (in one chapter it even daringly invokes the voice of Alice’s mentally disabled brother Eugene) it never represents the perspective of Alice herself. This is somewhat out of practicality. After Alice is severely beaten she enters into a coma so has no voice to comment. However, I did at some times yearn for her point of view. It’s only natural to want to hear the perspective of the abused over the abuser. But, as I neared the end of the book, it struck me as right that Oliver’s confession coupled with the accounts of people associated with him was necessary for accomplishing the powerful effect that Nugent makes. The novel wouldn’t have worked otherwise.
Despite the seriousness and sadness of many scenes in this novel, it is handled with a light touch so it doesn’t become too grim or ponderous. There are lots of endearingly human and humorous moments. At one point there is even a funny instance of the author poking fun at her own heritage when French Veronique remarks “Always with the Irish, there is the drama!” Nugent also has quite a thought-provoking take on issues of race and heritage in the story she’s constructed. The issues raised left me pondering the meaning of the ending and wishing I had someone to discuss it with immediately. The book is effectively a series of monologues which isn’t surprising given the author’s theatre background; the different dramatic voices form a complete complex narrative. This is an extremely compelling and accomplished first novel and I hope Nugent continues to write more in the future.
Watch a chilling trailer for the book with the opening chapter being read here: