I’m so excited to share my interview with Liz Nugent, author of the psychological thriller, UNRAVELING OLIVER. The story delves into the life of a man, Oliver Ryan, whose blows one day send his wife into a coma. As the story unravels, we learn more about Oliver, and what could have turned a charming, seemingly ordinary man into a sociopath.
Vilma: UNRAVELING OLIVER has been a #1 bestseller in Ireland and now it’s hitting shelves here in the U.S., which we’re all very excited about. Could you tell us what inspired the novel?
Liz: The story was inspired by two books I read around the same time: ‘The Book of Evidence’ by John Banville and ‘Engleby’ by Sebastian Faulks. Both books were written from the point of view of a male sociopath and I was really drawn in and fascinated by these characters. I decided that if I ever wrote a book, it would be about a deeply flawed man. Eventually, that’s exactly what I did.
Vilma: Did you set out to explore the nature of evil? Tell us about Oliver, and perhaps a little more about the story for those who’ve not yet had a chance to read it.
Liz: UNRAVELLING OLIVER tells the story of a man who beats his wife into a coma in the first chapter. He has never struck her before and the incident is a shock, even to him. Then I go back in time to detail the events that led up to this brutal act, through the eyes of Oliver and the friends and neighbors who think they know him. I prefer not to think that people are born evil so I gave Oliver a back story that might explain, but not condone, his behavior.
Vilma: The novel is written from multiple perspectives. Is there a particular character you enjoyed writing the most?
Liz: I loved writing Barney. We all know a Barney. Someone who is inherently good but just never gets the girl in the end because he puts her interests first. He has less education and therefore less confidence than all of the other characters but he is the most emotionally intelligent. I tried to give him a happy ending of sorts.
Vilma: What are you hoping readers will take away from the reading experience?
Liz: I guess it’s the idea that we can never really know another person no matter how long we have lived with them, or grown up with them. Your own mother has secrets that you will never know, though hopefully not deadly ones.
Also, I examine the nature vs nurture argument but I want to leave it up to the reader to make the decision as to whether Oliver’s final act was well-motivated or not.
Vilma: UNRAVELING OLIVER is your debut novel… what was the writing process like? Were there parts of the process that were particularly difficult as you laid out the narrative?
Liz: It was a very stop-start process. I wrote the first chapter as a short story which got shortlisted for a competition. Then the characters I mentioned in that short story wouldn’t leave me alone and demanded to be heard, so I wrote another two chapters. Life got in the way with work and some new writing commissions and it was two years before I got back to the manuscript but in the intervening time I had some great experiences (staying in a chateau in the south of France) which I was able to use effectively in telling the story. I wasn’t thinking in terms of genre or readers, just mapping out the story that twisted and changed as I was writing. I am hopeless at structure so I learnt a lot about that from my editor.
Vilma: What can you share about your next novel?
Liz: I am currently working on my third novel! My second, LYING IN WAIT, will be published in the U.S. in May 2018. I can tell you that it is a dark and sinister story of murder, a mother’s manipulation, and the consequences for the family of the victim and perpetrator.
Vilma: Thanks so much!
Liz: Thank you for such insightful questions! I really hope you enjoy reading me.
I wasn’t sure what to think about it from the description, but by the time I was three chapters or so in, I was hooked. At its core, “Unraveling Oliver,” is a drama about love, loss and identity – and along the way, we travel from the streets of Dublin to the vineyards of France and sub-Saharan Africa.
The book technically takes place after a well-respected author, Oliver Ryan, beats his loving wife, Alice, into a coma. It’s the first act of violence in the family, which had seemed so perfect and ideal. As they struggle to come to terms with the violent crime, the people surrounding Oliver weave a tale which finally reveals the truth about Oliver and what lead him to his final, gruesome act.
While the novel takes place in the present day, much of it deals with the history of the characters and reveals the details of their lives with Oliver. I was so drawn into their stories that I couldn’t wait to see why as coming next. There were some hints about the final big reveal, but I didn’t guess it totally. And I loved it – it wrapped up all the storylines perfectly in a way that was believable and satisfying.
Another thing I liked about the book was that it’s complicated. It’s not 100 percent straightforward and black and white – there’s a lot to consider about Oliver and how he became what he did. I like a good book that makes you think, even to the last page where the reveals keep on coming.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a good, well-written story. I was totally engrossed and wish there was even more of it to enjoy!
Do yourself a favor and buy this book.
UNRAVELING OLIVER was published in 2014 in debut author Liz Nugent’s native Ireland, but is only now appearing in the United States. The reputation of both Nugent and the book precede them, given that her work was named “Crime Novel of the Year” by the Irish Book Awards. This is understandable, and the level of those accolades should almost certainly be attained here as well. One senses from the first words that the book is a winner, and it gradually becomes clear just how striking it is. It puts a new spin on the concept of the unreliable narrator while tinkering with the basic foundation of the contemporary novel, all with grand purpose and even greater results.
It is understandable if, from the first page, Oliver Ryan puts the reader in the mind of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Indeed, Oliver gets the chance to make a first impression before anyone else, and doesn’t make the most of that or subsequent opportunities. While other characters are given their own chapters to narrate their versions of encounters and histories with Oliver, it is Oliver who does himself the most damage. One would reflexively reach for the term “clueless” in describing him, but it goes much deeper than that. He has no insight at all, a personality factor that in Nugent’s extremely talented hands implicitly yields even more information.
“One senses from the first words that the book is a winner, and it gradually becomes clear just how striking it is. It puts a new spin on the concept of the unreliable narrator while tinkering with the basic foundation of the contemporary novel, all with grand purpose and even greater results.”
Each chapter is narrated in the first person but by a different character. Some are told by Oliver himself. He begins by describing a brutal attack upon his wife, Alice. We don’t learn what precipitated this — at least not immediately — but what is revealed is that Oliver is a very successful author of children’s books under the name “Vincent Dax” and Alice illustrates his work. We also are told that there is a wooden box in Oliver’s possession that is quite important to him. Ultimately we learn its contents, though that knowledge is parceled out in exquisitely parsimonious fashion.
Other chapters are narrated by Oliver’s acquaintances, past and present. They include (but are not limited to) Barney, who was dating Alice until Oliver swept her off her feet and carried her off; Michael, Oliver’s friend from school who managed to escape his orbit, all for the better; and Veronique, a French vineyard owner who employed Oliver for a summer during his college years, the summer when their lives were changed irrevocably.
Nugent demonstrates that she is a master of quietly ratcheting up the suspense quotient as she slowly but carefully reveals all of Oliver’s secrets — including a couple he doesn’t know, at least at first — leading up to the mystery that lies at the heart of the novel: the reason Oliver so brutally attacked his wife. It is a wild ride from first page to last, demonstrating how the sins of one generation can result in the far-reaching destruction of the next. Even more remarkably, Nugent, without apparent strain, manages to conclude the book with a happy ending, if bittersweetly so. At least two characters, the most innocent of the lot, get what they want, and it’s indirectly because of Oliver.
UNRAVELING OLIVER is a riveting work that reads as if it was written by an author who has several books under his or her belt, which is a shame, because I happily would have hunted down everything on Nugent’s backlist and read it. She has published shorter fiction, which I eagerly will seek out and read while awaiting her next book. You should as well.
This title has received quite a bit of praise and acclaim leading up to its publication. Typically, this lends me to putting it on the back burner until the attention dies down, yet the source of the acclaim made me actually rush to read this one.
What a remarkable format. From the first line “I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her, ” I knew I was in for a thrill-ride of a read. Though we don’t know much about the attack from the beginning (the full-version isn’t actually revealed until near the end of the book), we are aware something pretty substantial happened. And, rather than learning the backstory or history from Oliver or some omniscient voice, we get it directly from those around him. Never was I concerned about the validity of the accounts, for the opinions of Oliver varied dramatically. Add them all up together and you get a pretty honest portrayal of his character.
Though, what makes this stand out the most is that it’s really multiple thrillers in one. First, we eventually learn the cause and what led up to the attack on Alice, but also a history of incidents Oliver was involved in that were deadly, or attributed to one’s death. This is an incredibly well-plotted read, for everything was so expertly planned out, revealed only when the timing was perfect.
I hate to compare this to previous books with incredibly twisty plots, for it most certainly stands out on its own. Truly remarkable, this title left my heart-pounding for days after I turned that last page. Highly recommended!
4 out of 5 stars
I have seen this line in many reviews and I hate repeating but it speaks volumes about this book:
“I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”
Thus begins the story of Oliver Ryan’s life and what he has done to get where he is. As the book starts, Oliver has beaten his wife Alice into near death. His story is told by Oliver and then by the people who have crossed his path. He didn’t have a great start in life, abandoned almost completely by his father, to live at a boy’s school. He never knew who his mother was. He didn’t know his half-brother by his father’s second marriage. He befriends Michael and has a relationship with his sister Laura, which doesn’t end well. To be honest, nothing ends well if Oliver has been involved. We also hear from Barney, who loved Alice. And then there is Alice’s brother Eugene, who she deeply loves, but because of his mental handicap, Oliver sends him away. Moya, the next door neighbor and an actress, has an affair with Oliver. It is accidentally by her hand that Alice finally learns the truth about Oliver and his time in France. It slowly unravels until we finally find out just who Oliver Ryan really is.
Oliver has been compared to Joe in the book You but I do not see that at all. I liked Joe, for whatever reason all we readers did, but there was nothing at all likable about Oliver. He does have his one generous moment, I will give him that. But even though Oliver was horrid, I kept reading and wanting to know more about what made him tick. I loved the alternating points of view because we saw just what different people saw differently about Oliver. The characters were all interesting in their own right with their life paths. If you want a rather dark read that will lead you down a rather dark path, this is the book for you. Enjoy!
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: “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 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 had 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.
Oh my gosh. Although I requested this, I have to be honest and say as soon as I was approved, I started having second thoughts. I absolutely loved the premise, but wondered how on earth Liz Nugent could possibly tell such a complicated story in under 300 pages. Well, not only does she pull this off, she does it brilliantly!
As the premise states, every chapter is from the POV of a different person who has come into contact with Oliver and Alice in some way. All of these voices have something important to add, even if you don’t originally think so. I mean, do we really have to hear from neighbors, childhood schoolmates, ex-lovers, and so on?. Yes. Yes we do. You see, every character adds to the puzzle that is Oliver, and their voices are all completely distinct from one another. The most chilling chapters are from Oliver himself, and I actually got goosebumps while reading. I connected with every single one of them, which itself is pretty amazing.
The story is filled with moments that shocked me, and it’s so cleverly told that it’s only at the very end that you see the entire picture. Unraveling Oliver is a captivating journey into the psyche of a monster, as well as the people whose lives are forever changed by being in contact with him. It would be a perfect choice for a book discussion group as it invites debate over the nature vs nurture question. I highly recommend this to fans of dark psychological suspense. I cannot wait to see what Liz Nugent comes out with next!
Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent
(Fiction, Gallery/Scout Press)
Oliver Ryan is handsome and charismatic, with a devoted wife, Alice, with whom he writes and illustrates children’s books. One night after dinner, he beats her into a coma. In the aftermath of the violence, as Alice hovers between life and death, their neighbors, friends and acquaintances struggle to understand what happened — and why.
The unfathomable motive behind a seemingly unprovoked attack by children’s book author Oliver Ryan on his wife, Alice, drives Irish author Nugent’s outstanding first novel. To most people, the handsome, charismatic Oliver and the plain, shy Alice appeared to have had a decent marriage for more than 20 years. The relationship was enhanced by Alice being the illustrator for Oliver’s world-renowned kids novels. Despite Oliver’s frequent affairs, he was discreet and the couple enjoyed a comfortable life in Dublin. The narrative alternates between those who knew Oliver and Alice at different times. Family members, friends, and acquaintances seek some clue to what caused Oliver’s brutality as Alice languishes in a coma. Even Oliver seems amazed at his actions because he was “fond of her, in my way,” and appreciative that Alice made no demands on him. The tension subtly rises as Oliver’s past unravels, revealing a loveless childhood rooted in religious hypocrisy. Nugent presents a fresh look at a man hiding his violent personality in this intense character study, which won the Irish Book Award’s Crime Novel of the Year.