The previous post from Talk about books was “A double standard: Wilkie Collins, The Law and the Lady”.
A few years ago, before I started Talk about books, I wrote about Liz Nugent’s third novel, Skin Deep (2018). (The subtitle of that post, “A woman to blame”, is something I stole from Nell McCafferty’s book about the Kerry babies case, if you were wondering why it sounds familiar.) At that point, I had already read Nugent’s second novel, Lying in Wait, which had come as a bit of a shock to me. The visual style of the cover and the setup in the opening pages, in which a heroin-using young woman is murdered, led me to expect a police procedural or a mystery story focused on a murder investigation. But the book turned out to be something altogether stranger and more interesting.
The police don’t play an important role. The detective sergeant isn’t interested in the murder of a drug addict whom most of the characters take to have been a prostitute as well. There’s no real evidence that Annie Doyle was involved in sex work but the police here assume that any young woman who is using heroin will need to rely on prostitution to pay for her habit — while admitting that it would be difficult for a drug addict working on the street to make enough money to buy a regular supply of Advil.
While the sergeant is more interested in trying to impress the victim’s younger, beautiful and much more articulate sister, Karen, his subordinate, Detective Mooney, quickly identifies the right suspect but dies in an unconnected car crash before he can persuade any of his superiors that there’s a case worth pursuing. Karen is one of the three first-person narrators from whose alternating points of view the story is woven. The other narrators are Lydia and Laurence. Lydia is the wife — and, in short order, widow — of Detective Mooney’s suspect, a judge. Lydia was present when her husband strangled Annie Doyle, and in fact delivered the coup de grâce. Laurence is her son, her only child, to whom she’s excessively attached.
At the start of the story, Laurence is obese, and it’s suggested that Lydia overindulges him to keep him dependent on her. As the story progresses, he loses weight (before putting it on again) and eventually Lydia reveals that she’s been putting crushed tablets of Phentermine in his food. On learning this, Laurence reacts:
I suppose Mum thought she was helping me, and maybe I should be grateful, but I’m angry with her for not telling me. She was so determined to control me. (p. 310)
Laurence realizes early on that his father has lied to Detective Mooney about where he was when Annie Doyle was killed. The boy later finds her body buried in a flowerbed in their back garden and assumes that his father killed and buried her, acting alone. (Lydia had suggested burying Annie there because the garden would remain under their control, so the body would never be found.)
As Laurence tries to escape from his mother’s influence, he becomes obsessed with Karen, which of course gives rise to complications. In my post about Skin Deep, I described its protagonist as “a partly deserving scapegoat”. That’s a role that Laurence ends up filling too, though he’s less deserving (I mean less blameworthy) than the later novel’s Cordelia and than some of the other characters in his own story. He’s not particularly sympathetic: he’s selfish, deceitful and is cruel to his girlfriend, Bridget. But he’s certainly not the worst behaved character in the novel, and he does have the twin excuses of having been isolated and bullied at school, and of living with Lydia as his mother.
Another parallel between this novel and Skin Deep is that each story features behaviour on the part of a nine-year-old girl which is admittedly to some degree malicious, but which has catastrophic consequences greatly out of proportion to the degree of malice of which a nine-year-old is capable. This is what I wrote about the later novel:
Delia (afraid that her mother is about to take her away from her beloved father and the bleak and bare island where she’s spent her whole life so far) tells her father an exaggerated version of the truth: that she’s seen [her father’s best friend] Tom the Crow kissing her mother. The consequences this time are that her father locks the rest of the family into their remote cottage, sets it on fire and shoots himself dead.
In Lying in Wait, the nine-year-old is one of a pair of twins. They’re not identical: she physically resembles and is closer to her absent mother, while the other twin, Diana, is closer to their father. Their mother had abandoned the family and was considered a “loose” woman. So, when the twins had a party for their ninth birthday, only one schoolfriend turned up. The parents of the other children wouldn’t allow them to associate with the twins because of their mother’s moral turpitude. For this, Diana blamed her twin, who was pretty, like their mother. (Instead of her mother’s looks, Diana had inherited “Daddy’s breeding”, p. 133). In a rage at this, the pretty twin had pushed Diana into the garden pond, cracking her head against the bottom, and then sat on her chest to stop her from getting out again.
Eventually, their father was reconciled with the surviving twin, but not before she had to spend 10 months away from home, staying with her aunt Hilary.
She would watch me warily and correct my table manners. At bedtime she would come into my room and ensure that I had said my prayers and asked for God’s forgiveness. I said my prayers with gusto, although I could hardly believe any longer in a God who would allow my mother to run away or let me kill my own sister. (pp. 139–40)
The alternating first-person narratives — a difficult trick to pull off, as it requires three distinct voices — mean that no character is fully aware of the whole truth. Karen, for example, never learns who really killed her sister, though she believes she knows and 30 years later is “still so angry that he got off scot free” (p. 331). He didn’t get off entirely scot free. He is brain-damaged, semi-verbal and needs help with feeding. Even knowing that, Karen’s and Annie’s father was tempted to go and “beat the living daylights out of him” (p. 331). (He certainly couldn’t have resisted.) I take it that Karen’s point is that what happened to the supposed killer was not a direct result of the murder and so doesn’t count as punishment. It might have (would probably have) happened anyway. But, of course, she doesn’t know all the circumstances.
Nugent’s first novel, Unravelling Oliver, also alternates first-person narratives but this time there are eight narrators, some more central to the story than others. As in the second novel, the device of multiple narrators means that no individual character knows as much as the reader does by the end, and this gives rise to painful ironies. It’s quite a short novel, about 230 pages, but intricately plotted and eventful. Oliver Ryan is a very successful author of beloved, delightful children’s stories. How is it possible that a man capable of producing such work could suddenly, out of the blue, beat his wife of 20 years into a coma?
It turns out that I am a violent man after all. It comes as a shock to me. (p. 9)
Oliver is the son of a former Catholic priest who, presumably because of the circumstances of his conception, could barely manage to look at him and never showed him any affection. From the age of 6, Oliver was sent to a nearby boarding school, run by priests. He could actually see his father’s house from a window in the school, but he was never allowed home for weekends or holidays and his father visited him in school only every second year, and then only to take care of the practicalities. When the former priest marries and has another son, Oliver becomes even more conscious of his isolation, his unloved status.
But school doesn’t last forever (it just seems that way). Oliver manages to get to university, without any assistance from his father, where he finds he is handsome, personable, witty and attactive to women (and to his friend, Michael).
When a group of students, including Oliver, Michael and Michael’s sister, Laura, go to work for the summer in a vineyard near Bordeaux, Oliver thinks he has found the family he never had before. Véronique, who owns and runs the vineyard, and he are indifferent to each other, bordering on hostile, but her father and her son both take to him, and he to them. Trying to find a way not to have to leave his new “family” at the end of the summer, Oliver makes and acts on some harebrained decisions that have unforeseen but catastrophic results. The family is destroyed.
Years later, when Véronique learns part of the truth, she proclaims that “Oliver Ryan is a monster” (p. 175). She doesn’t know the half of it, and fortunately for her she never learns the whole truth. She’s not the only one to be kept partly in the dark. I suggested above that the function of the multiple narrators is to allow the reader to see the whole picture, while keeping the characters in partial ignorance.
So, Laura kills herself without ever finding out how the child she has borne and given up for adoption could be Oliver’s. That it should be so appears impossible, and Véronique assumes she must be lying about the baby’s paternity, though Laura is certain that nobody but Oliver could be the father. Many years later, when the child, now a lawyer, seeks out Oliver in the mental hospital (presumably Dundrum) where he has been detained, Oliver immediately knows she must be his daughter, but decides to spare her that knowledge. Even as he watches her mirror his mannerisms, he assures her that her father must have been somebody else, that it couldn’t have been him.
She seemed relieved I think. Happy to know that, after all, her father was not the monster who sat before her. We shook hands. (p. 231)
As I’ve said before, a lot of new crime fiction, much of it by women, has emerged in Ireland in recent years. Liz Nugent’s novels stand apart from the mainstream of this fiction. For a start, they don’t form part of a series, with recurring characters, so she doesn’t have to be careful to avoid ruining her characters’ lives. While the settings are familiar, realistic and naturalistically described, the actions and events are often melodramatic and the motivations of the characters shocking and twisted — much more so than would usually be the case in a typical serial killer story, for example. So, the impact of these stories is heightened by the incongruity between setting and action. That’s equally true of the third novel as of the two I’ve been discussing.
A few years ago, when I was moving and wanted to get rid of some of the books that were cluttering up my living space, I was surprised by my own conviction that I was never going to want to read Skin Deep again. I had enjoyed it immensely and knew that there were enough details that I didn’t remember to ensure that I wouldn’t be bored if I did reread it. But no, it was definitely going to the Oxfam shop. I suppose that, having explained it to myself in the post mentioned above, I felt it was time to have done with it. (On the other hand, there are many books that I’ve kept, long after having “explained them to myself” by writing about them, so perhaps it’s not that.)
I wasn’t nearly as impressed by the fourth novel, Our Little Cruelties (2020). A story of rivalries between brothers (and also the chronicle of a death foretold) it seemed to me altogether more ordinary and less surprising than the earlier books. I wonder whether my opinion was influenced by the fact that I read it in an ebook edition that I’d borrowed from the library, whereas the others were paperbacks.
Nugent has published a fifth novel, Strange Sally Diamond (2023) which I intend to read when it comes out in a smaller format paperback.
Editions: Unravelling Oliver, Penguin paperback, 2015; Lying in Wait, Penguin paperback, 2017)