Unraveling Oliver
Liz Nugent
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Buy *Unraveling Oliver* by Liz Nugentonline

Unraveling Oliver
Liz Nugent
Gallery/Scout Press
272 pages
August 2017
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines's take on Unraveling Oliver.

Nugent’s novel begins with a terrifying incident of violence. The events involving famous children’s author Vincent Dax become a catalyst for the intense examination of this solitary man whose real name is Oliver Ryan. As his illustrator wife, Alice, lies on the kitchen floor, holding her jaw, Oliver offers a ham-fisted excuse. Oliver is not the easiest of people, and Nugent hones in on his solitary early life, tunneling back into his unhappy childhood in Ireland where he was ignored by his father, who packed him off to boarding school.

Alice serves as the central focus of the narrative as Oliver and various other characters tell their stories back and forth in time. Barney talks about knowing Alice since childhood. A working-class mechanic who had set his sights on Alice, Barney always liked her and her mentally challenged young brother, Eugene, but he was outsmarted by the wealthier and better-looking Oliver. The other major voice is Michael, whose sister Laura was once in love with Oliver. Although Michael hasn’t laid eyes on Oliver in years, he remembers that summer when he, Oliver and Laura worked at a vineyard in France. There Oliver courted the attention of the owner, Monsieur, his daughter, Madame Veronique, and her young son, mischievous Jean-Luc.

As each narrator in turn tells their story, the reader pieces together their intricate connections. The autumn grayness of Dublin is drab compared to the sun-drenched brightness of Bordeaux. Nugent melds the trauma of that summer--when Oliver was “trying so hard to be a good person”--to his youth spent trying to impress a parent who more or less refused to acknowledge his existence. Oliver knows little about his mother, other than that she was caught up in a scandal in 1953 and considered of ill-repute. Oliver grows older convinced that his father is punishing him by hiding the salacious details of his past.

In subtle tones, Nugent unravels Oliver’s dark secrets without revealing her hand until the very end of her tale, when Madame Veronique ascertains the truth about Michael and Laura, whom Oliver sees as a brilliant, flighty and flirty girl with a bright future. Oliver, a perennial outsider, is a character drawn directly from Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Nugent imbues him with a keen sense of how people operate, particularly in the way he views his wife: “She was lovely in a soft way.” Oliver liked Alice’s quietness; she made little or no demands on him, apart from asking him to care for her “imbecilic” brother, whom Oliver ends up putting in a home for the mentally handicapped.

While Oliver’s general wish is to life rolling smoothly, he pulls off unbelievable, almost unspeakable acts with the finesse and skill of a master jeweler or the audacity of a veteran politician. He’s either a malevolent fairy godfather or a ministering angel. Nugent charts Oliver’s journey with panache, deconstructing his personality and his deceit in a hypocritical Irish Catholic world where the truth can cause more pain than lies and some secrets are best left unsaid. The author finally reveals how clever and sinister it is that Oliver used a pseudonym to write his bestselling books.

In a life swamped in disloyal behavior, Oliver insinuates himself into Laura’s life; he wants desperately to be her lover. Michael recognizes this early and sets about trying to take advantage of Oliver’s feelings. Why do some people become obsessed with what they cannot have? Is happiness possible in any other form than who we deem the one and only person we want? Are Martin and Laura--and eventually Alice--so infatuated with Oliver that they cannot recognize his treatment of them for what it is? Possibly, but Alice, to her detriment, decides to accepts the good parts that come along with Oliver’s attention.

I liked the novel, although I had little empathy for Oliver. Like Tom Ripley, Oliver’s need for self-preservation is the key factor in a droll, rather ironic story about the nature of fate and one man’s changing circumstances. Nugent wraps up this rather dark theme in a relatively simple plot of love, death, revenge and a supplication that tracks Oliver’s ultimate path towards forgiveness.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2017

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