- Our Little Cruelties, by Liz Nugent. Penguin. $32.99.
"All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin." After an opening sentence like that, you are hooked. And while you are still on the first page, you find a reference to the dead man's 'smashed and broken body' and there is mention of a suspect.
The magic of this book is that we do not learn who is in the coffin until the very last page. As a reader, you will have your own theories and they will change as the story unfolds - for the record, I got it wrong.
The three men at the funeral were children of singer Melissa in the days when showbands filled dancehalls all over Ireland and lead singers tended not to have a surname. Luke was 11 months younger than Brian who was in turn 14 months younger than Will. Aged six, seven and eight, they vied for attention, a rivalry that continued through 10, 11 and 12, through their teenage years and into adulthood. As they attend the funeral of one of them, it is 2019 and they are middle-aged, each successful in his own field.
The structure of the book is unusual. We hear first from Will, snippets of his life journey, moving backwards and forwards in time, helpfully identified by using a year as chapter heading; then we get Brian's story and final Luke's, each told as a first-person narrative. Towards the end, as we get closer to 2019, the voice changes every few pages. The ending is believable and just as you are quite satisfied with the story, there is a two-page addendum in which the voice changes to the only child the three have produced and you realise that whatever the surviving brothers may think, the story may not be quite finished.
This is a quite outstanding novel. It draws you in and gets your sympathy for the brother speaking, only to have it shattered by some small incident or careless remark; later the same episodes will be reprised by another brother, sometimes by both of the others. Perhaps "sympathy" is not the best word for your reaction, because it is difficult to imagine a book about three men, their parents and the various women they love without meeting even one major character you can like. If these men and their various women are today's Ireland, it is not a pretty thought.
The genius of the book is that we do not learn about the train wreck that is the Drumm family from some wise outsider or third-party narrator. The speakers throughout are the men themselves, so self-centred and crass that they do not understand the damage they are doing to themselves and others.
Part thriller, part whodunit, part old-style family tragedy, this is storytelling at its best. I gave Liz Nugent's previous book Skin Deep my top marks; this one joins it.