The story revolves around the Drumm brothers Will, Brian and Luke, and opens with all three attending a funeral — “although one of us was in a coffin”. Neither of the two living siblings is a suspect for the death, but both of the unidentified survivors feel it has turned out for the best. So how did a family of affluent Dublin southsiders reach this point?
Nugent divides the narrative into three sections, each taking the perspective of a different brother, zigzagging backwards and forwards in time, covering incidents and indiscretions throughout their lives. Born in 1968, Will is the bullish eldest brother, his mother’s darling. When his dowdy brother Brian brings his exotic American co-worker Susan home for dinner, it’s the better-looking, more confident Will who ends up dating her within a few weeks. An accidental pregnancy means the couple are soon married, but their daughter Daisy is a delight.
Will’s abundance of confidence is a boon in his professional life, as he forges a career in the movie industry, where he prefers to pull the strings as a producer because “directors are just hired hands”. Alas, that self-confidence also comes with an enormous sense of entitlement, and Will carelessly hurts everyone around him due to his self-centredness.
Next comes Luke, the sensitive, obsessive youngest brother. Closest to his father, who dies when the children are teenagers, Luke is maniacally religious as a boy, carving out his own stigmata to pose as Jesus for Halloween. Somehow, though, he stumbles into a pop career, dropping out of university when his solo act takes off. However, music stardom and its associated hedonistic lifestyle are not a good fit for the psychically fragile Luke, who battles with manic depression, personified in the form of a ghost baby he sees in his blackest periods. Yet the youngest brother is like a ghost himself, barely present as he drifts in and out of people’s lives in a narcotic fugue, needing rescue every time he implodes.
Finally, we come to Brian, the overlooked, overshadowed middle child. While his brothers are big noises in the film and music industries, he ekes out a precarious living as a teacher — before taking over as manager of Luke’s music career just as that star starts to fade. He never forgives Will for stealing Susan, but despite his bitterness remains the most grounded of the three brothers. Only Brian is clear-eyed enough to note: “We all knew the experience scarred him deeply, but it was one of our family’s little cruelties to revisit it, often.”
Despite this, he is nearly as blind to his own faults as his brothers are to theirs.
Nugent builds her narrative skillfully, with the ellipses in each brother’s account gradually filled in by the ensuing tales. All their psychologies are incisively laid out, consistent and layered across all sections, while she also develops a fourth critical character: Mum.
A northsider who became a showband star, the boys’ mother married up when she met their father, but now refuses to acknowledge most of her side of the family while simultaneously denigrating her husband for being so much older than she is. Flighty, vain and seemingly every bit as self-centered as her eldest son, she has no trouble picking favourites, and the vagaries of her love cast a deep shadow over her boys’ lives.
Yet nobody is a mere cliché in Nugent’s clear, propulsive writing, and the author masterfully unveils the damage and hurt behind every motivation, and the petty resentments, delusions and carelessness that lie behind every nick and cut the family members inflict upon one another over the four decades of her tale.
Nugent has won four Irish Book Awards for her previous three novels; it would be a cruelty to deny her further honours for her fourth.