Dymphna Nugent’s weekly book review for the Waterford News & Star in conjunction with The Book Centre, John Roberts Square
LIZ Nugent has long cemented her role as one of Ireland’s leading crime and psychological fiction writers, but ‘Strange Sally Diamond’ has catapulted her to another level. Sally is Liz’s fifth title and by paragraph two, it was clear that Sally was not going to be easy to forget.
In her 40s, Sally opens the book with the disposal of a body, by telling us she was just following her father’s orders.
“‘Put me out with the bins,’ he said regularly. ‘When I die put me out with the bins. I’ll be dead, so I won’t know any different. You’ll be crying your eyes out,’ and he would laugh and I’d laugh too because we both knew that I wouldn’t be crying my eyes out. I never cry.”
And she did… she put him out with the bins when he died.
Reclusive Sally finds herself the centre of a media frenzy, facing camera flashes and probing questions, headlines and none of it makes any sense to her – all she did was follow her father’s wishes.
The horrors of her childhood come to the fore and Sally is forced to step out of the shadows and make new friends, finding independence in a world where she has always lived in the shadow of her home. Those who have read ‘Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine’ will see traces of her in Sally and the level of reader empathy for Sally is evoked very early on.
The trust which Sally begins to have in the outside world is compromised when a man from the other side of the world contacts her, calling her Mary. At the same time, her neighbour takes an uncomfortable interest in her and a series of unwanted messages begin to arrive. It’s clear that people know more about Sally than she does herself and her trust begins to crumble, just as she had begun to find her sense of identity and independence.
The unravelling of the plot is carefully controlled, each word and sentence constructed with the aim of doing Sally’s story justice. Sally herself is different to Liz Nugent’s previous leading characters, she is eccentric, strange even, and therefore a complete enigma. This doesn’t necessarily make her an unreliable narrator, we find ourselves travelling alongside her to watch her life unfold without her father, in the wake of a devastating reality.
Her view of the world is black and white, she takes people at their word and she believes wholeheartedly in the concept of truth. It is this which makes the plot so endearing and so horrifying because the world which has been constructed around Sally is not one of truth.
A much more familiar character is introduced in the form of Peter, a man who is rapidly turning into an image of his kidnapper father. He is both victim and villain, someone we want to feel sympathetic towards as his life has also been uprooted, but his cruelty is damaging and dangerous.
At its core, the novel looks at the devastating reality of growing up in the shadow of a kidnapping; of a life being a lie, and of finding out the truth in the most public of ways. Liz Nugent’s writing is always thought-provoking, sinister and it never fails to offer us the darkest corners of the human mind, which is lurking in plain sight around us every single day if we choose to see it.
The darkness is counteracted at times with a dark, dry humour, indicative of Nugent’s trademark writing style, and the hope which is offered to us for Sally is welcomed because we crave that happy ending for her, but the bleak reality remains, that this is what humans are capable of. An astonishing read, lead by the unforgettable Sally, this will remain with you.
Dymphna Nugent contributes reviews to the Irish Examiner, the Irish Times, and the Waterford News & Star