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Liz Nugent’s best-selling and dazzling debut novel Unravelling Oliver is, as they say – and they’re saying it quite a lot – “unputdownable” and “a page turner”.

Proper order too. So what exactly is this strange and elusive essence of “unputdownableness”, this “page turnability”, if you know what I mean?

(Mind you, it can be far easier to identify the complete opposite – books that are putdownable, ones that don’t deserve the page to be turned. It’s a bit like being hit by a bad movie soundtrack, or terrible typography, or an excessively long and convoluted restaurant menu: it becomes obtrusive and obstructive and glaringly obviously bad.)

The opening

Right from the start of Unravelling Oliver we begin to get a good idea that its main character, Oliver Ryan, is a monster.

What is being described isn’t gory or visceral per se. Yet these opening sentences are vicious. They hit you. Punch you, grab you by the scruff of the neck and won’t let go. They have a profound intensity and, um, page turnability. And, importantly, they are from the monster’s point of view (POV).

To complicate matters, Oliver is a handsome, charismatic, highly successful author. He is, as the book’s tagline puts it, “The perfect man, the perfect monster.”

Here’s the book’s promo video, featuring leading Irish actor Barry McGovern. It nearly follows the book’s opening lines word for word…

I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her. She just lay on the floor holding her jaw. Staring at me. Silent. She didn’t even seem to be surprised.

Got that? First five sentences and you simply have to read on. Either that or you’re a Stepford Wife with serious problems with your Energizer batteries…

I was surprised. I hadn’t planned to do it. Usually when you hear about this kind of thing, it is the 1950s, and the husband comes home drunk to his slovenly wife from the pub and finds that his dinner is cold. On the contrary, it was 12 November 2011, a wintry Saturday evening on a south Dublin avenue, and Alice had prepared a delicious meal: lamb tagine, served on a…

It’s a stunning beginning.

See how just there he said “The first time? Like there’s a second time too? There is too, as we quickly learn a few pages later:

The second time I hit Alice, I just couldn’t stop…

But to go back to this first time. She “just” lay there. “Just”? What a complete, absolute bastard this Oliver villain is. What else is the poor woman to do? Just get up? Just shoot him? As for him, he, the “I” in the narrative so far, this Oliver Ryan, the main protagonist in the whole shebang? It is he that’s “surprised”. Unlike her apparently.

So self-centred, and you can almost see his ice-cold shrug in this opening page as he says “When you hear about…” or “this kind of thing” and as he takes in the warm tagine and chilled Sancerre.

The structure

We’ll skip the food and wine in the novel (there’s a fair bit of it) and the dark, twisting humour. Instead, let’s stay with the book’s structure. It’s delicious, elegant and tight.

From chapter one the story is already foreboding and foreshadowing. We start near the end of things: Oliver’s brutal attack on his wife, a vicious attack seen from his POV. Near the end of the chapter we hear how a wooden box – in which Oliver has “locked away my darkest secrets” – has been opened, its “contents violated”. A mysterious wooden box of secrets.

Just when you expect more, chapter two switches POV. This sudden shift is a surprise: a major change in tone, voice and pace, a flashback by another character – a neighbour.  At first this neighbour’s reminiscences might seem mundane, almost trivial, yet in this story you shouldn’t take much for granted.

So while Oliver’s POV tries to dominate the overall narrative – it takes up about a third of the book (nine of its 25 chapters) – along the way the POV switches back and forth between seven other characters. It’s a constant tension between his side of the story and these other members of the cast.

These other POVs include:

  • His neighbour Barney
  • His gay admirer from college days, Michael
  • A former employer in France called Véronique d’Aigse (these three characters account for 11 chapters)

Four other POVs are, in terms of chapter counts, lower league :

  • An old school pal
  • A half-brother
  • A brother-in-law (poor old Eugene)
  • A luvvie actor and neighbour called Moya with whom Oliver is having an on-off affair

Having multiple POVs can be a risky strategy. It can confuse readers or be unconvincing. But Liz Nugent’s suspenseful novel pulls it off. These other voices add layers of perceptions, untwisting strands of Oliver’s character, stripping away to the man behind the mask, and revealing how he’d taken in the people around him over the years.

At times these “other” chapters almost feel like witness statements for the police. Certainly not character witnesses for the defendant in the courtroom sense – more like confessions to neighbours, or even told-you-so’s to friends or to the tabloids in the aftermath of this terrible crime.

These multiple POVs are retrospective and sometimes introspective, adding to the page turnability, along with the cliffhangers at the end of most chapters. We know Oliver is a terrible monster, but how and why did he become so? What happened next? Underneath it all, who is he really?

The twist

The twist at the end is magnificent – more reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth rather than, say, the neat and unsatisfactory conclusion of Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December.

Around the time of reading (OK, the book had to be putdownable for two hours), our house also happened to be watching Alain Delon in Plein Soleil. It’s the French version of Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr Ripley. As ice-cool psychopaths go, Delon is a few shades darker than Matt Damon in the English version of the film: he’s impossible to read, and Time Out once described the film as “beautiful on the surface and strange and sinister below deck”.

In a sense, like a callous Tom Ripley, Oliver is a conman. All slick surfaces yet strange and sinister underneath. He’s telling tales. His whole life is a construction, a fiction, one big lie. These other POVs and other voices keep reminding you that there are other sides to the story, to Oliver’s fable.

Without spoiling the plot and Oliver’s twist (or twists, because after the main one there’s a further final twist in the epilogue), let’s just say that Unravelling Oliver is all about telling tales: story telling is at the heart of it all.

Have you read it too? Have I missed something? Please add your tuppenceworth in the box below…

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