Book Review: ‘Unravelling Oliver’, by Liz Nugent

Liz Nugent is a master of opening lines, and Unravelling Oliver doesn’t disappoint.

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

And so we meet Oliver Ryan, a successful children’s writer and charismatic charmer, and his wife, Alice, who illustrates his books. We start the story in the aftermath of Oliver attacking Alice and leaving her in a coma in hospital. Oliver begins to tell his story. Interspersed with the stories of people Oliver knew throughout his life, we discover his tale of abandonment, guilt and entitlement, and learn what drove him to attack his wife.

It’s a sign of a good book if the entire story is based around the life of one character who is particularly unlikeable, and yet you’re engrossed by him. Oliver is a confusing character to read, as you’re never quite sure how you feel towards him. He is fairly repulsive in his way of thinking and how he treats people. He’s arrogant and, if I’m honest, he reminded me of the stereotypical Tinder guy I’ve come across a few times. Basically, he’s very easy to hate.

But as the book progresses and you find out what his life has been like and what he’s gone through in his childhood, you can sort of understand why he turned out that way. It doesn’t necessarily forgive the things he has done, some of them are pretty unforgivable. But it makes you think twice before you judge him too much.

Unravelling Oliver illustrates Nugent’s ability to write believable people. No one in real life is completely good or completely bad. Everyone has done things that may not match the moral standards of someone else. Hopefully, not many of us have done things as morally challenged as Oliver, but he serves to show the grey areas in life when it comes to people.

It’s the basic nature vs nurture debate. Would Oliver have turned out as he did if his father hadn’t cast him aside? If he had known who his mother was from the beginning? Or was it inherent in his character that he should be violent?

We learn a lot about him from the perspectives of different people in his life: Barney, the man who was dating Alice before she met Oliver; Michael, a friend from college; Moya, Oliver and Alice’s neighbour; and Véronique, a woman Oliver worked for during a trip to France.

Each perspective flows well from one to the other, dripping information to the reader at the perfect pace to keep you hooked.

If I had to nitpick at something (and it’s purely nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking) it would be that the character of Alice is a bit flat for me. I’m not entirely sure why she stayed with Oliver for as long as she did, especially with how he treats her brother. Good-looks and charm can only last so long, especially in a marriage. But that might just be me being fussy. Mostly I absolutely adored this book and if you haven’t read any Liz Nugent then go and do it right now. Right this second. Go.

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