Our Little Cruelties
‘All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin.” The opening line of Liz Nugent’s eagerly awaited fourth novel is a showstopper and sets off a compelling rollercoaster read that reveals the utterly devastating consequences of sibling rivalry in a very troubled family.
The siblings in question in Our Little Cruelties are Will, a much-lauded film producer who always gets his own way, Luke, a drug-addicted pop star who has played stadiums all over Europe, and Brian, who’s described by one of his brothers as “boring, broke and single”. Fully aware that their mother, Melissa, an actor and show band singer, doesn’t love them equally, all three grow up constantly competing for her love and attention.
A narcissist, Melissa is more interested in her career than her children and happily leaves the intricacies of home life to her much put-upon older husband.
While she openly worships Will, the eldest, she continually riles the younger boys, often telling them they’re never good enough and will never amount to anything. Will inherits his mother’s harsh attitude, telling us at one point that “I don’t know which of my brothers was more useless”. And, despite having a mother who works outside the home, he turns into a total misogynist, seeing women as either sex objects or inconveniences.
Brian is the overlooked middle brother who, as an unhappy English teacher, lives in the shadow of his more famous siblings. Luke is the youngest and the signs of mental illness he displays as a child are ignored by the family leading to serious problems later in his life. Hospitalised on a number of occasions for continual “meltdowns, manic episodes, psychotic highs and deepest lows”, he is dismissed for his hysterics by his mother.
Her cruel streak and tendency to only think about herself is summed up when she tells her son: “Your father had an aunt who got hit by a train and everyone knows it wasn’t an accident, though we all pretended it was. You wouldn’t do anything like that, would you, Luke? Disgrace the family like that? I don’t think I’d be able to cope with the shame.”
Using flashbacks, the plot takes us from 1970’s childhood right to the present day and we witness the brothers betray and exploit each other – for status, money, family and women – until eventually one of them is dead.
We hear each of their stories separately, offering an unedited insight into what they are really thinking – and it’s usually not pretty. The deep recesses of our minds are not meant to be revealed, and Nugent’s ability to deliver so incisively makes for a captivating narrative. As the three different perspectives emerge, the story slowly knits together, filling in gaps left vacant by earlier accounts and bringing us to a dramatic conclusion.
While the death of one of the Drumm brothers is a key aspect of the book, Nugent’s realistic characters and edgy plotting make this novel shine.
This is a contemporary psychological thriller that will leave you wondering if you ever really know what someone else is thinking – or what goes on behind closed doors.
Luke puts it best when he tells us that “my past was a jigsaw puzzle with so many missing pieces. I didn’t even want to find the pieces because I wasn’t sure what horrors they held”. As you gallop towards its shattering climax, you’ll realise just how right he was.