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.
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 depict 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 Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
By Liz Nugent
Scout. 260 pp. $26