Unraveling Oliver, Liz Nugent’s debut novel, begins with quite a stopper when the novel’s main character Oliver Ryan states without much ceremony in the opening paragraph: “I expected more of a reaction when I hit her. She just lay on the floor holding her jaw. Staring at me. Silent. She didn’t even seem to be surprised.”
He speaks about the violence towards his wife Alice, with a mixture of cold detachment and oddly placed affection, which leaves little doubt about his possible sociopathy. If we were in any way uncertain of this, Oliver convinces us when he goes out for a cigarette to supposedly collect himself, and upon returning home, hits the already badly bruised Alice repeatedly and with such violence that she is left with irreparable brain damage
It’s a packs-a-punch way to begin any novel and achieves the desired effect. Now we can’t put Nugent’s novel down, we must know what lead to this moment, what could possibly have provoked this vicious attack from a man who allegedly loved his wife. Oliver does try to explain his side, admitting that Alice had uncovered his “darkest secrets” and that she intended to “ruin” him. Needless to say, the explanation for the attack falls flat and gains no sympathy, at least from this reader, but nevertheless the need for my curiosity to be fulfilled is relentless.
Nugent’s narrative is a mishmash of different POVs, from Oliver to his mistress, to his half-brother, his former best friend, Alice’s ex-fiancé and so on. The many voices here do become a bit much and the change of narrator rapidly obnoxious. But the secret Oliver is keeping (as it turns out he has many more that Alice never knew about) becomes alluring enough to invest in Nugent’s story, although it’s truly not revealed until the final chapters.
The problem lies also with an almost too-simple narrative from most of the characters. Oliver comes across as less of a disturbed, complex psycho and more of a spoiled, vain and snooty man-child. Evidently, a father who refused to acknowledge his existence and kept him hidden in an obscure Catholic school are surely catalysts for his coldness. However, Oliver’s observations are often-times simplistic and plain, not giving the reader much of a reason to be either in awe or horror of his actions.
The other characters are equally lacking in either depth or substance, not giving us much more than a bird’s eye view into their relationship with Oliver and how he deliberately or not, ruined their lives. By the end of it, all the sympathy lies with Alice, both because of the violence done to her and the fact that her own POV before the assault is sorely missing. A voice that should have been as important as Oliver’s in the story is simply and tragically ignored.
As the story goes back and forth between the characters, our interest begins to wane. It’s certainly not expected that Nugent give us Süskind’s Jean-Baptiste Grenouille or Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, but Unraveling Oliver could have benefited from a more thorough exploration into a disturbed mind in lieu of POV’s that didn’t add anything substantial to the story. Oliver’s mistress Moya for instance, is certainly not an engaging enough character to retain our attention through multiple chapters, and although perhaps a few of her reveals are important, they certainly didn’t require as much of a spotlight.
Unraveling Oliver is appealing enough to draw the reader in, but unfortunately, it doesn’t manage to maintain much of a grip. This doesn’t mean that Oliver’s reasons for possibly being the way he is are uninteresting, but Nugent could have challenged herself further by giving her characters deeper complexity and dimension. Instead, she chose to leave them terribly jejune which is a disservice not only for the story, but also for the reader.