Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent – Review

Published by Penguin Ireland

Publication date – 9 April 2015

Source – review copy


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

Liz Nugent’s gripping novel of psychological suspense, Unravelling Oliver, is a complex and elegant study of the making of a sociopath in the tradition of Barbara Vine and Patricia Highsmith.

Oliver Ryan is a handsome and charismatic success story. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, Alice, who illustrates his award-winning children’s books and gives him her unstinting devotion. Their life together is one of enviable privilege and ease – enviable until, one evening after supper, Oliver attacks Alice and beats her into a coma.

In the aftermath, as everyone tries to make sense of his astonishing act of savagery, Oliver tells his story. So do those whose paths he has crossed over five decades. What unfolds is a story of shame, envy, breath-taking deception and masterful manipulation.

Only Oliver knows the lengths to which he has had to go to get the life to which he felt entitled. But even he is in for a shock when the past catches up with him.”
Read more at on the Penguin website.

My thanks to the publisher for my copy of the book. The following is my honest opinion of the novel.
Oliver Ryan is a successful man, wealthy after publishing a number of award winning children’s books, books that were illustrated by his wife Alice. It would seem that theirs is the perfect life but one evening Oliver beats Alice so badly he leaves her comatose. Afterwards those who know Oliver reveal what they know about the man, whilst Oliver tells his own story of what led him to hurt Alice as he did.
The fascinating aspect to this story is that it is told backwards as it were. The book opens with the horrific crime, when Oliver beats Alice unconscious and then works backwards to show how Oliver arrived at that moment. Oliver is indeed unravelled, but conversely the narrative creates a more rounded and fleshed out view of Oliver Ryan, rather than stripping him down.
As more is revealed about Oliver it becomes more apparent that he is a sociopath. Whether he was born this way or whether his sociopathy was as a result of how his life played out is a question that perhaps cannot be answered and it is left to the reader to decide. My interpretation is that Oliver would have always turned out to be as he did, irrespective of his background. Whilst handsome and charming, Liz Nugent makes it apparent throughout that Oliver has few feelings for anyone but himself, and those feelings he does have for others are all to benefit him in some way
The format of alternate chapters, narrated by different characters works extremely well. Each one had an individual voice, easily distinguishable from each other, making the characters well-rounded and convincing. Even those who didn’t have their own chapters, and were described only by way of hearsay from the other narrators, were complex and easily imagined. We only ever hear about Alice from the other characters and each of them have only their own view of her. There is no impartial observer who can accurately portray Alice, and this indeed could also be said for Oliver. But that is after all a reality. Each of us is a different person to everyone we know. We may be known by a different name, have a different role or a less or greater impact on someone’s life and therefore a person’s opinion of us is coloured by that relationship.
Liz Nugent’s writing quietly draws you into the world of Oliver, Alice and the people who have come and gone through his life. There is a compelling undercurrent to the story, pulling the reader along so that they find out more, whilst the sense of unease and awareness that there is something ‘not quiet right’ about Oliver Ryan builds.
Chilling, fascinating and quietly compelling. This is the debut novel from Liz Nugent. I am eager to read more from her in the future.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Great review. I have this on my tbr, makes me want to bump it up. X


    1. janetemson says:

      Thanks. It had been on my TBR for a shocking amount of time but I’m glad I made time for it. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it 🙂


  2. Sounds great Janet, I like the structure.


    1. janetemson says:

      It worked really well I thought. I do like it when playing with structure works, and thankfully it did here 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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