One evening, after dinner, children’s book author Oliver Ryan beats up his wife Amy so badly she ends up in a coma. From that opening page, Liz Nugent takes us into a gradual exploration into who Oliver is, from the perspectives of various people who have encountered him throughout his life. Unraveling Oliver is a tense thriller in that there’s clearly something psychologically wrong about Oliver, and each layer we peel away just gives us deeper and deeper insight into the darkness inside him. But more than a thriller, it’s a fascinating character study of a deeply troubled, psychologically disturbed man.
We begin the book by hating Oliver for his senseless, indefensible act of violence. Similar to a court case where we hear from witnesses, the more we hear from Oliver and from the people who knew him — his college best friend, his mistress, the owner of a vineyard where he worked — the clearer a picture we get of the violence in him. It’s important to note that a lot of these characters’ view of Oliver as cruel comes only with hindsight; often they admit not realizing anything was wrong with him until he attacked Alice.
Much like Dexter Morgan and Humbert Humbert, there’s something undeniably compelling about Oliver, and rather unwillingly, I found myself becoming more fascinated by his character as the story drew on. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I felt sorry for him — despite his troubled childhood and father issues, he still does awful things with such naked resentment and contempt that he remains firmly in villain territory. But I did find myself drawn to him and intrigued by his story.
There is a vulnerability in Oliver that pulls at the heartstrings, even as you want to feel nothing for him but hatred. One particularly heartbreaking story involves a childhood friend whose family takes Oliver in over the holidays, only for Oliver’s father to order him back to his dorm like some evil, child-hating headmaster from children’s books. And later in adulthood, when he finally finds another surrogate family at the vineyard, you can almost feel sorry for him when things go horribly wrong.
I love the format in which Nugent tells this story. As we peel back layers of Oliver and learn who he is and what he has done, we’re all too aware of the fact that all of these narrators bring their own perspectives to the stories they tell, including Oliver himself. None of the narrators knows all the details, and all of them have their biases (for example, the man secretly in love with Alice or the brother-in-law who loved Oliver’s books but didn’t trust the man), so while the facts may be accurate, the portrayal we get of Oliver is ultimately unreliable. This just makes the story even more compelling, as the truth Nugent offers us is fluid throughout.
I enjoyed this book. It wasn’t a page turner and it struggled to hold my interest in places, but overall, I found it clever and compelling.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.