Unravelling Oliver / Media Reviews

16 Creepy Books to Read with Your Book Club This Fall

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent
Posted on October 3, 2017 by 

UnravellingOliverIn this “compelling, clever, and dark” (Heat magazine) thriller, a man’s shocking act of savagery stuns a local community — and the revelations that follow will keep you gripped until the very last page. This work of psychological suspense, a #1 bestseller in Ireland, is perfect for fans of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Ware.

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

So begins Liz Nugent’s astonishing debut novel — a chilling, elegantly crafted, and psychologically astute exploration of the nature of evil.

Oliver Ryan, handsome, charismatic, and successful, has long been married to his devoted wife, Alice. Together they write and illustrate award-winning children’s books; their life together one of enviable privilege and ease — until, one evening after a delightful dinner, Oliver delivers a blow to Alice that renders her unconscious, and subsequently beats her into a coma.

In the aftermath of such an unthinkable event, as Alice hovers between life and death, the couple’s friends, neighbors, and acquaintances try to understand what could have driven Oliver to commit such a horrific act. As his story unfolds, layers are peeled away to reveal a life of shame, envy, deception, and masterful manipulation.

With its alternating points of view and deft prose, Unraveling Oliver is “a page-turning, one-sitting read from a brand new master of psychological suspense” (Sunday Independent) that details how an ordinary man can transform into a sociopath.

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Novel Ideas

By Chris Stuckenschneider, Book Editor, Sep 16, 2017

UnravellingOliverFrom Page 1, readers know that the protagonist in “Unraveling Oliver” is a powder keg, unpredictable and abusive. Oliver Ryan is a pathological liar but he does admit to beating his wife Alice senseless, leaving her comatose, a woman he says is “habitually obedient with just an occasional rebellion.”

Irish author Liz Nugent has penned a debut that’s dark, eerie and smartly crafted, with a variety of characters, each taking a turn telling their story, and relating what they know about Oliver. The chapters whiz by and the tension mounts as the narrative branches out, the characters connected in ways that eventually make sense.

Oliver’s is the first voice we hear, hateful and embittered. A well-known children’s book author, Oliver admits at the onset it’s not the first time he’s hit Alice, uncomplaining, talented Alice, the illustrator of his books — kind Alice who cares for her special needs brother. She’d have done well to stay with Barney, her dull but caring boyfriend, but she banished him for charming, troubled Oliver.

As the characters weigh in, they offer clues about Oliver’s dysfunctional upbringing, his friendship with Michael, a gay man who’s attracted to him, and Michael’s sister Laura, who loved Oliver unconditionally 40 years before, when they both worked at a winery in France.

It’s there that Oliver’s life changes in a tragic event he stages that doesn’t turn out as planned, one that breaks the heart of another, and in the end provides Oliver with his last chance for redemption.

“Unraveling Oliver” is creative and engrossing with a twisted protagonist who’ll make your skin crawl, yet who elicits a modicum of sympathy in the end.

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The mystery of a writer’s unraveling

Liz_Nugent-Washington_Post_Unravelling_Oliver

A middle-aged children’s book writer who comes undone

 September 18

Oliver Ryan — he who is about to be unraveled in Liz Nugent’s fine first novel, “Unraveling Oliver” — is a middle-aged writer whose series of children’s books has earned him an international following and a fortune. But he has hardly walked onstage when we learn that he has beaten his wife into a coma from which she may never wake up. Set in Ireland, the novel consists of first-person monologues by Oliver and several other characters which serve to explain how he could have done such a heinous thing.

Unravelling Oliver We discover that Oliver wasn’t just poor as a child; he was poor and shabbily dressed at a rich kids’ boarding school, sent there because his father wanted to see as little of the boy as possible. Unfortunately, Oliver could see him. The school wasn’t far from the family house, which Oliver could bring into focus through a pair of binoculars and watch as the attention he craved was lavished on his younger half brother. Not surprisingly, Oliver grew an emotional carapace; in a nice phrase, he admits that none of the women he dated as a young man tugged at his “alleged heartstrings.” What’s behind his father’s cruelty provides one of the mysteries that Nugent teases out in this highly entertaining and aesthetically satisfying novel — a book that stretches the limits of crime fiction.

The story is told by multiple narrators, who repeatedly home in on a fraught collegiate summer when Oliver, a male friend and the friend’s sister went to France to work as field hands at a family-owned winery. The aging proprietor happened to be working on his memoirs, and since the family had saved the lives of several Jews by hiding them during World War II, he had plenty to tell. Oliver, being more proficient in French than any other worker, was brought in from the fields to help with the writing. The promotion gave him needed recognition as well as contact with the patron’s lovable 6-year-old grandson. As the odd trio spent more and more time together, Oliver warmed to this substitute for the family life he’d never had — until a nightmarish event brought everything crashing down.

“Unraveling Oliver” harks back to naturalism, the 19th-century literary movement that drew upon the zeitgeist (evolutionary science, determinism) and the nascent discipline of psychology to Liz_Nugent-Author of Unravelling Oliverdepict men and women — especially from the working class — as playthings of heredity and environment. In Europe, the movement’s doyen was Émile Zola with his Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels. In the United States, the practitioners included Frank Norris (“McTeague”), Stephen Crane (“Maggie: A Girl of the Streets”) and Theodore Dreiser (“Sister Carrie”). One risk of naturalistic storytelling is a tendency toward futility. The reader comes to believe that McTeague, Carrie and the rest couldn’t have avoided perdition even if they’d spotted it lying spread-eagle in their paths. Nugent solves that problem by making Oliver self-aware, articulate and oh-so-needy.

Nugent’s other exceptional asset is her skill as a plotter. She assembles the pieces of Oliver’s past to form a rich and coherent design. When Philip, the half brother, reflects on the puzzle of Oliver’s banishment, for example, he only deepens the mystery. “My mother insists she would have raised Oliver as her own son if Dad had let her. Mum says it was the only thing that caused heartache in their marriage. It was simply a part of my father’s life that he refused to acknowledge or discuss. She says he passionately and irrationally hated the boy, and she never knew why.” The reader will soon find out exactly why.

Dennis Drabelleis a former mysteries editor of Book World.

UNRAVELING OLIVER

By Liz Nugent

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