Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent #readingirelandmonth19


IMG_0451.PNGIt can’t be said that Liz Nugent doesn’t know how to write a killer opening line.

Her last two novels have gripped from the very first sentence and Unravelling Oliver, her first book, is no exception.

I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.

These words are being spoken by Oliver Ryan, the charismatic, good-looking and successful children’s book author. He has just attacked his wife, Alice, and for once, things don’t seem to be going to plan for Oliver.

A significant error of judgment had been made. She should not have ended up on the floor … It turns out that I am a violent man, after all.

Oliver has beaten his wife into a coma and is, it would appear, a sociopath. What has led him to this moment? What secret was Oliver so desperate to protect that he would destroy the careful life he has built for himself?

What follows is an exploration of Oliver’s life as told through the intertwined testimonies of people who knew him and occasionally, the viewpoint of Oliver himself.

We have Barney, the one-time boyfriend of Oliver’s wife. Barney still lives close by and still has feelings for Alice while maintaining a relationship with her disabled brother Eugene. Oliver’s old school mate Michael, a restauranteur recounts their friendship, along with the ill-fated relationship that Oliver had with Michael’s sister, Laura. A key summer in 1973 is explored through the story of Veronique, the owner of a chateau and vineyard where Oliver, Michael and Laura came to work as students, and it is the events of this summer that hold the key to Oliver’s attack on Alice.

This weaving together of the different strands of Oliver’s life and personality is subtly done allowing the reader to start slowly putting the jigsaw pieces together. It is a compelling way to tell Oliver’s story and is well paced and artfully plotted. The book is set over 40 years and as such; it allows Nugent to explore a range of issues, from attitudes to homosexuality in Ireland, through race and racism to the treatment of the mentally ill.

For a novel that is based on different narrative voices, these have to be done very well yet in Unravelling Oliver, there is often a lack of distinction between the tone and speech patterns of the characters. This is particularly evident in the sections told from Veronique’s point of view The characterisation can often be slight and some of the stories lack a compelling drive. The final unravelling that undoes the knot of Oliver’s existence comes about due to a coincidence that stretches credibility to the extreme.

It is also a shame that the voice of Alice is never heard. Her decision to marry Oliver and to go along with his demands and behaviour throughout their marriage remains frustratingly unexplained, and her story, even with her character in a coma, could have added depth to this character study.

Having said that, Unravelling Oliver is a short, disciplined character study, exploring how childhood trauma can affect not just the lives of those experiencing it, but the lives of those around them. A taut and enjoyable whydunit, Unravelling Oliver exposes the darkness that can lie underneath the surface of the most seemingly perfect of lives.

About the Author:


Before becoming a full-time writer, Liz Nugent worked in Irish film, theatre and television. In 2014, her first novel, Unravelling Oliver, was a Number One bestseller and won the Crime Fiction Prize in the 2014 Irish Book Awards. Her second novel, Lying in Wait, went straight to Number One in the Irish bestseller charts, remained there for nearly two months and won her a second IBA. Penguin published her most recent novel Skin Deep last year.

She lives in Dublin with her husband.

Ireland Month Irish Literature

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

18 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I haven’t read anything by this author, though I’ve seen her books around. I may give Lying in Wait a try. Thanks for the great review of Unraveling Oliver (as it’s called over here).


  2. The similarity of different narrative voices is a weakness that turns up again and again, and always leaves me wondering why authors don’t take the easier route of telling the story in the third person (which, as a reader, I generally prefer anyway). However, I see this was her debut and she certainly seems to show potential – perhaps I’ll try one of her later books.


    • It’s an interesting way to tell this story as we are drip-fed details courtesy of the differing points of view, but it needed a little more nuance for me. I’ve read all her books and I think her most recent – Skin Deep – is her most sucessful.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my goodness, what an opening. It makes me both want to read it and steer well clear all at the same time. It sounds so compelling, though I pr would want hear Alice’s voice too.


  4. That opening is a gem indeed. i’ve not read any of her work but given your reaction to this one, I would be inclined to go for her later books b y which time she would have ironed out any of the wrinkles in narrative technique that you mention


  5. I suppose it’s not unusual, but it seems unfair that one is even likely (outside of a given country) to know of its genre-writing authors than it is to be acquainted with some of its authors of literary fiction. It’s probably the same story for Canadian writers – that more people outside of Canada know about Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje (or Esi Edugyan and Madeleine Thien, to choose slightly less obvious ones) – than would know of Joy Fielding or Shari LaPena as thriller/suspense authors.


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