I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review
Unraveling Oliver tells the story of a man disturbed throughout his life by many internal factors that ultimately lead to his destruction as he behavior grows cruel. Trigger warning: This book contains abuse, ableism sexism, homophobia, and racism. All are relevant to the story, but are present none the less.
The story begins with Oliver mercilessly beating his wife after she finds out the contents of a lock box he keeps hidden away. My initial impression of this book was that it was supposed to be like Gone Girl in Ireland, but what I got was more of a character study of a man with a rather unpleasant childhood that grew into something of an unpleasant young-adulthood and became a mess of a grown up.
Oliver is not a character who warrants much sympathy, if any. However, what is interesting about the way this book is written is the non-linear, testimony-like narrative conducted by several characters who lives crossed paths with Oliver in varying ways. The twisting narrative was complex and revealed a lot about the prejudice of Ireland during the 50’s to the 70’s.
As I mentioned, Oliver is an asshole. He had a hard live only made harder in later years, but that does not excuse him at all. He is homophobic, racist, and sexist. Oliver is honestly the kind of skeeze that just takes advantage and uses his past to justify his actions. But the story is less about him as a person and more about finding out why he did what he did.
The other characters in the story – there are several who narrate the relationships with Oliver and his wife, Alice – are not all that great either, but each of them have depth and well thought out motivations and back stories. I found myself more fascinated with them than with Oliver at times.
The Issues [ spoilers ]
I didn’t really have “issues” with this book, but I want to discuss the trigger warnings I mentioned above. This contains major spoilers to the plot of the book.
Let’s start with the sexism. Oliver has no use for women and no care for them outside what they can do for him. Alice was useful to him in their relationship and he was constantly manipulating her – once by even abusing her disabled brother – in order to get what he wanted. Moya was useful to him through their affair. He even admits to having sex with prostitutes on a regular basis and cheating with other women as well to get off how he wanted to. Even when it came to Laura, the one girl he seems to think he actually loved, he brushed her aside when he didn’t need her for comfort or company any more. The same could be said for Oliver’s father, a man who engaged in sexual conduct with a young African girl (who just wanted to go to school by the way) and then didn’t bat an eye when the poor thing fled the village after birthing his son (who was born as white-passing).
This brings us to the racism in the book. There are examples of blatant slave work during the moments set in France where a white man brings South African men with him to do all the work in the vineyard while he keeps all the money and gives them only wine. Not to mention the man also beats them. Then we have white-passing Oliver who is so intolerant that he refuses to believe he is mixed raced until the very end when he discovers his daughter with Laura was born black. He even lies to her, under the guise of protecting her, that he is not her father. I can understand Oliver’s hurt of being lied to, but his abandonment and neglect as a child was clearly motivated by racial intolerance rather than anything else his father could have thought of.
I could honestly go on and on forever about the abuse Oliver was victim to as well as the abuse he inflicted on several people, including Alice’s brother who is mentally disabled. The mistreatment of Eugene made me truly uncomfortable and I honestly almost stopped reading. I only didn’t because I had come to far to keep from wanting to know what Oliver had locked away in that box Alice found.
In conclusion it was a brilliant way to tell a purely character driven story and a very interesting character study. The different narrators telling their own stories as well as contributing to Oliver’s was a rather great way of going about this novel. The content, however, was upsetting and bordered on offensive at times (at one point Oliver tells his gay friend that he “finds queers disgusting”) but that only contributed to why Oliver is not a protagonist to root for. It was not at all what I was expecting, and I honestly would not call this a thriller or a mystery but more of a dark contemporary novel with violent tones. I was pleased with how author Liz Nugent was able to tie up every loose end to each of the narrators’ tales and find myself curious about her other work.
Not at all a bad story.
Author: Liz Nugent
Published: February 6th 2018
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Canada
Summary: Oliver Ryan, handsome, charismatic, and successful, has long been married to his devoted wife, Alice. Together they write and illustrate award-winning children’s books; their life together one of enviable privilege and ease—until, one evening after a delightful dinner, Oliver delivers a blow to Alice that renders her unconscious, and subsequently beats her into a coma.
In the aftermath of such an unthinkable event, as Alice hovers between life and death, the couple’s friends, neighbors, and acquaintances try to understand what could have driven Oliver to commit such a horrific act. As his story unfolds, layers are peeled away to reveal a life of shame, envy, deception, and masterful manipulation.