Source: Review copy
Publication: 26 March 2010 from Penguin
Three brothers are at the funeral. One lies in the coffin.
Will, Brian and Luke grow up competing for their mother’s unequal love. As men, the competition continues – for status, money, fame, women …
They each betray each other, over and over, until one of them is dead.
But which brother killed him?
Nobody writes dysfunctional families and maladjusted personalities better than Liz Nugent. She has the capacity to understand what makes people cruel and unforgiving and to really flesh those characters out. It’s as if she crawled inside their heads then slowly pushed out the festering pus she found there until it spilled onto the pages of her manuscript.
This book is about the Drumm family, pretty well to do Dubliners. There are three brothers, William, Brian and Luke and their mother, Melissa, an ageing showband singer. The book opens with a funeral. One of the brothers is in a coffin, though we don’t know which one. As we read, we will find ourselves changing our minds about which one we hope it is.
The story is told from the perspective of each of the brothers. The narrative moves back and forwards in time to offer up reminiscences, and a completely compelling and quite horrifying look at three young men who grew up competing for their mother’s love; something that was in ever diminishing supply.
This is sibling rivalry taken to extremes. Not one of the brothers seems capable of empathy. Will is the first born and feels entitled. Dominant, not unattractive, he will forge his way into a successful career as a film-maker.
Brian is the middle son and has something of an inferiority complex and a bit of a hang up over his crooked nose. He goes into teaching but scuppers that career and ends up as a talent manager. Maging the career of his youngest brother, Luke, a pop star.
As the youngest, Luke battled in vain for his mother’s love and has always been a physically fragile waif as well as having a damaged psyche.
Melissa is self –absorbed and plays favourites without concern for the consequences. Will takes Brian’s would-be girlfriend, seduces and marries her, never for a moment considering how Brian might feel about this. Brian becomes godfather to their daughter, Daisy.
Luke craves his mother’s love but constantly rejected, he first turns, somewhat maniacally, to the Church and then substituting that obsession for the more normal addictions of drugs and alcohol. Somewhat stumbling into a pop career, he weaves in and out of addiction and lets himself be taken advantage of by all and sundry, but especially by his brothers.
Liz Nugent crafts each of these characters very carefully and by allocating the narrative to each of the brothers what we get is a deeply partial, three sided account of a number of life changing incidents where the reader is left to extrapolate exactly what has occurred.
But goodness me these characters are toxic. Full of self-importance and without a hint of self-awareness. William is a cheating, sexist bully. Brian is a mean and spiteful thief and Luke is a fragile ego with a weak mind and a pale, skinny body.
There is no sense of a family together here. Rather each knows the weaknesses of the other and they pinch, poke and prod at those weaknesses trying to get their victims to react.
This is very powerful writing and Liz Nugent builds up the picture in such a way that the reader is fascinated and horrified simultaneously, watching, like a fly on the wall as these men torture and torment each other in the name of family.
And the ending…..OMG that ending. Just thanking my lucky stars I was never caught in an isolation lockdown with these guys!
Verdict: Liz Nugent is an extraordinary writer at the top of her game. This is a propulsive, transfixing portrait of a family that should be on everyone’s must have list.
Liz Nugent was born in Dublin, where she now lives with her husband, musician and sound engineer Richard McCullough. Before becoming a full-time writer, Liz Nugent worked in Irish film, theatre and television. Her three novels – Unravelling Oliver, Lying in Wait and Skin Deep have each been Number One bestsellers in Ireland and she has won four Irish Book Awards (two for Skin Deep). She lives in Dublin with her husband.