5 stars out of 5
Told from the perspectives of several key characters, the chapters in this debut novel weave together a portrait of a young man who seems exceptionally likable on the surface. Readers, though, know otherwise right from the start; successful book author Oliver Ryan (who writes under the pseudonym of Vincent Dax) readily admits punching his wife, Alice, into unconsciousness and a coma from which it's likely she'll never recover.
Since my husband comes from Irish stock (and, in fact, his surname is Ryan, the same as the central character), I was more than a little excited to receive a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. When I opened it on my Kindle, however, my first reaction was far less enthusiastic. For the past couple of years, you see, I've often spoken of growing weary of books in which the chapters shift points of view, each one building on background that leads to the grand finale when everything comes together. That said, I've also maintained that this technique, while it may be over-used, is extremely effective when it's done well. And it's done very well here.
Set in Ireland (where reportedly it was a bestseller, I assume when it was initially released in 2014), the book begins with Oliver's astonishment that he actually punched the daylights out of his wife - even though it's pretty clear that he's treated her like dirt from the git-go. From there, his earlier life is described by other characters, beginning with Barney, the guy Alice dumped after she met Oliver and began illustrating his books. There's Michael, whose sister Laura was at one time a serious contender for the role of Oliver's wife, plus a couple of others who reminisce about Oliver's past and, of course, Oliver himself. Details of his life are unraveled, as it were - coming together again to show how, why and by whom Oliver's dark side was nourished (clearly, the devil is in the details, none of which I can reveal here without spoiling things for other readers).
At any point along the way, did I feel sympathy for Oliver? Not once. Were there times the story seemed a titch unbelievable? Perhaps - but this is a novel, after all, so a little bit of crossing over that line is perfectly acceptable. More to the point, was I disappointed when I reached the end and there were no more pages to read? Absolutely! Put another way, this book is a gem - highly recommended.
Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent (Gallery/Scout Press, August 2017); 272 pp.