Unravelling Oliver | Liz Nugent | 2014 (Pb 2015) | Penguin | 235p | Review copy | Buy the book
Oliver Ryan has it all – a wealthy, successful children’s novelist with many years of a long and happy marriage to Alice, his illustrator, behind him. But then one day, out of the blue, Oliver beats Alice so severely that she barely survives and falls into a coma from which it is unlikely that she will ever awake. What turned Oliver, this famously cultured man, into a killer and why did he turn on the woman who had shared his life for decades? Their friends can’t make sense of it and try to work it out, looking back over five decades of memories and shared history.
Unravelling Oliver has a shocking opening – the brutal assault of Alice by her husband. We see the event through Oliver’s eyes and his words, making the act even more savage by its dispassionate retelling. From that moment on, Alice is gone from Oliver’s life and his future but she is not so easy to remove from his past. The rest of the novel presents a series of narratives by their friends, ex-lovers and family. The accounts alternate, some people we return to more often than others, some have little input but what there is has a devastating impact. Page by page, Oliver is unravelled. At times he contributes. His narratives, scattered throughout the book, are increasingly revealing when set beside the memories of those who know him.
We travel through the years, beginning with Oliver’s schooldays and young adulthood. Many people have been important to Oliver’s creation and we watch them here, leaving their mark. One person, though, can’t know the full story. More perspectives are needed and we’re given them. Each illuminates the other, some adding a few more bricks to the tower while others remove them. And all the time we have the absence of Alice. Her voice can’t be heard.
Unravelling Oliver is a short novel but it is immensely full and hugely rewarding. It is clever, richly layered, fantastically written and a book to make you think. It presents us with a series of characters and situations that are utterly engrossing. Oliver is unravelled slowly before our eyes but so too are others in his life. The narratives begin with shock at Oliver’s actions but with time they descend deeper into his and their shared past. Our emotions and sympathies are tested. Little is black and white. Some sections are upsetting, others are infuriating. Unravelling Oliver becomes an utterly compulsive read, continually surprising us, sometimes shocking us, constantly revealing yet another layer to unravel. What lies underneath keeps the reader absolutely hooked until there can be nothing left.