Graham Norton’s debut novel, Holding, is an emotional and funny look at the inner workings of a small town and the secrets it can keep over the years.
Sergeant PJ Collins is an overweight Garda in the small town of Duneen, Co. Cork. He’s self-conscious and feels like he’s missed out on a lot in life. He’s never been in a relationship, lives alone in the Garda barracks and feels even his job can’t give him any satisfaction.
That is until a construction company unearths some human remains on a farm and suddenly the town is awash with rumours. Could they be the bones of Tommy Burke who left Duneen years before with no sign of his return since?
There are two women who might know. Brid Riordan, the former fiancee of Burke and current local alcoholic, and Evelyn Ross, the woman who was madly in love with Burke before he left.
It’s up to PJ to find out who the remains belong to and how they got there. But while he’s digging for answers he uncovers secrets that have been buried in Duneen’s past for over two decades.
Holding is an unconventional whodunnit story. The remains that are found are not the focal point of the novel, as would be the case in most murder-mysteries, but rather they serve as the catalyst for Duneen’s past to be revisited. Each character has something they have hidden or tried to forget that is brought back to the forefront with the discovery of the body.
Evelyn has to come to terms with the heartbreak and abandonment she felt when Tommy left, while Brid comes to realise why she depends on drink so much and has to rethink the life she settled into. PJ himself has his life turned around when a detective from Cork comes to help with the investigation, while also trying to come to terms with the possibility of a new romantic life with a murder suspect (or two).
This focus on the characters rather than the mystery is one of the things that makes Holding so enjoyable. Setting his story in a small Irish village brings with it a danger of falling into stereotypes and clichés, but Norton manages to stay away from this by knowing his characters inside and out and writing them with such power that it’s difficult not to see them as real people.
He jumps between perspectives throughout the novel, even during the same scene, which was a bit jarring at first. But once you get used to it, it’s quite nice to see the scene through the eyes of the different people that are involved, and it, again, shows how well thought through each character is. It flows easily from perspective to perspective, and helps the pace of the story so you’re always kept on your toes.
This is all a testament to Norton’s writing skills. There’s always a risk when a celebrity writes a novel that the reader won’t be able to differentiate between the name on the front of the book and the actual story itself, but this is not a problem here. It’s easy to forget the well-known persona who wrote the book and get lost in the actual story itself. The people of Duneen are welcoming and engaging and once you’re in it will be difficult to leave the little village until the very end. The mystery, even though it’s not the centre of the story, is intriguing and filled with enough little twists and surprises that you’re kept guessing until you find out what happened.
There is a few laughs throughout the book, but they’re a lot more subtle than the comedy we’re used to seeing from Norton. PJ’s reaction to Detective Linus, specifically to his name, made me giggle the most.
But it’s the overwhelming sense of loss and isolation that permeates through this book that gets to you the most. It’s heartbreaking, and made even more so when you come to realise how unnecessary it all is. The Ireland of Duneen’s past, with its strong Catholic upbringing and small town views has a lot to answer for by the time the truth comes out. But you will definitely enjoy the journey, even if you do shed a tear or two.
Holding is available from Hodder and Staughton