Nugent's stunning, unsettling novel captures the evolution of an Irish family--the Drumms--from the early '70s to the beginning of a new century, a drama told from the perspective of three brothers: Brian, William and Luke. The timeline moves fluidly through each character's experiences, stripped of pretension, albeit generally lacking in self-awareness. Quiet horrors bloom in the shadows, an infusion of discontent tainting most family interactions.
A loving father, generous to a fault, is the keeper of the family's emotional needs. Sadly, he becomes an object of scorn when paired with a dominating, narcissistic mother, a popular Dublin singer and stage performer. She unabashedly shares her preference for one child over another. Luke, the youngest, chronically receives short shrift. This matriarch's lack of affection and casual cruelty is tempered by her mate's caretaking instincts, but there is little doubt of the damage a rejecting mother plays in the lives of her three sons. This is a family ever on the edge of crisis, the winds of grievance howling through rooms rarely filled with laughter, more likely boyhood bickering born of competition and envy.
Nugent deftly reveals the lives of each son over four decades, each narrative built on painful experiences, psychological development and careers. The result is astonishing. While each Drumm son is surprisingly successful (first-born Brian in film production, William an actor's agent and Luke a hugely-popular recording star), their emotional limitations are significant. All three are defined by their mother's affection, or lack of it, each measured by a shared truth: "We did not have the vocabulary then to articulate what we always felt, but somehow, from that day on knew. That we were loved most."
Little Cruelties is a seductive journey. Nugent's prose is compelling, if painful. The protagonists constantly navigate a tightrope, in distress, under threat of collateral damage, if not actual violence. It is impossible to look away, a terrible roadside accident, bodies strewn through the wreckage.
This novel is actually a mystery, a surprising twist in a grueling narrative, a footnote to tragedy. The power of Little Cruelties begins with the first chapter, separate stories scattered through random ages, puzzles that eventually take shape. The landscape is often difficult, perhaps too dark for some. Yet Nugent is fearless, unsparing, addressing themes of motherhood, religion, alcoholism and mental illness, a surfeit of human woes. It is thrilling to experience this Bosch painting come to life. Also devastating.