Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent

The first thing I have to say is ‘Wow! What an opening.’ I read the first page then went to find my other half so I could read it to him. He’s one of those people who say ‘just chuck me in a bin bag’ so I thought he’d love it too. Of course it’s horrifying, but I also found it blackly comic and with Irish ancestors myself I can honestly say it’s an Irish trait. We laugh at the story of Mother – my great-grandmother – putting her head in the oven and wondering why it was taking too long. Slowly realising it was an electric oven. Tragic, horrifying, but hilarious at the same time. I felt this all the way through the story of Sally Diamond, a young woman having to negotiate a new life after the death of her incredibly protective father. He was an academic doctor and it turns out Sally was his subject. He leaves Sally letters to read after his death to give her all the information about what to do next. However, Sally can be very literal and by carrying out his verbal wishes to be in a bin bag, it turns out she may have committed a crime. Luckily family friend and GP Angela comes to the rescue, explaining to the police that Sally is ‘different’ she’s been sheltered and her childhood before her adoption was very traumatic. In fact her father left specific instructions in his letters, but as Sally points out he should have labelled the envelope ‘open this as soon as I’ve died’. Sally learns that she was born in terrible circumstances and it’s only chance that saved her. How will Sally cope with the detailed news about her past and how will she integrate into the community and learn how to manage by herself?

I found Sally rather endearing, despite her tendency to ask personal questions and disappearing to play the piano when things get too much. Sally knows that her mother died, in fact she committed suicide after their escape. Sally was born Mary Norton, in a locked extension attached to the home of Connor Geary and his son. Sally’s mother was abducted by Geary and brought back to the specially built annex where he chained her to the radiator. Denise Norton was subjected to all forms of abuse and violence and gave birth to her daughter in captivity. They were only found when a burglar broke into the house and Denise shouted to him ‘I am Denise Norton’ over and over, in the hope he’d tell the authorities. Sally doesn’t remember anything about her earliest years, but when she’s sent a grubby, old teddy in the post she knows instinctively that he’s hers. Sally was adopted by the husband and wife psychologist team who were treating her and her mother after they left hospital. After a short space of time, it became clear that Denise would not recover well and it was decided that in order for her to develop, Mary must be removed from her mother. Tragically, as soon as this happened, Denise committed suicide. Ever since, and with the new name Sally, she has lived an isolated rural life in Ireland. Sally has her quirks: she asks deeply personal questions; she would tear out her hair if upset; she could be extremely violent. As we followed Sally’s journey it started to feel really uplifting and I was so happy for her, finding the ability to live a fuller life would be a real happy ending to the story.

Then the book changes and we’re listening to a boy called Peter from New Zealand, having emigrated from Ireland. I found Peter’s father terrifying, he is a misogynist and incredibly controlling to the extent of telling his son he has a rare disease that means he can’t touch other people. This lie will have terrible consequences, when Peter tries to make connections with others. Slowly a terrifying story emerges about their home in Ireland and the ghost who lived through the wall. Sometimes he’d hear the shrieks and moans from that room. When Peter was left to be looked after by the ghost, something terrible happened and the trauma has stayed with him for life. I felt so moved by Peter’s story, but terrified by what he could become. I felt as if the loss of his friend Rangi that was the turning point. Peter can also be extremely violent and even though he is assailed by guilt afterwards, the damage is done. I hoped and hoped for a point of redemption for him. When his father starts to build a barn and look for another victim he has no choice but to be complicit. If something happened to his father, would he able to come clean and let them victim go? Does he ever wonder about what happened to his mother’s family in Ireland?

I was hoping that these two damaged people would get to meet each other. Both of them need family and a sense of where they’re from, even when the truth is awful to comprehend. The author has such a talent for playing with the reader’s emotions, letting us feel for a character then finding out they’ve done something terrible or making us feel sorry for a character we dislike, because of something they’ve experienced. Her characters are always complicated and flawed, but this was the next level. I loved watching Sally start to thrive with the support of those around her. She uses the money she inherits to renovate a cottage closer to the village. She starts to build relationships with her dad’s sister Aunt Christine and her Uncle Mark too. The high point is a lovely party at Sally’s cottage with a bouncy castle for the kids, which she is even persuaded to try herself. Then a stranger from New Zealand turns up at her door and I was riveted to the story from then on to see how this will affect Sally. Can two damaged people console and support each other, or will they drag each other down? We are about to witness the difference of growing up on opposite sides of the wall. This was a fascinating novel, especially if you love psychological thrillers and studying how someone’s start in life contributes to the person they are. I was also fascinated with the idea that those who heal can also hurt. When your adopted child is also your subject, your academic reputation and possibly even your funding, lines become blurred. I desperately wanted a happy ending for Sally because she’d made so much progress but can so much trauma ever be left behind? The author created a character that I was so emotionally invested in, she will definitely stay with me. She’s so complex and nuanced that she felt completely real to me. The book is incredible and is up there with my top reads of this year, it’s one of those that will keep coming back to me until eventually I grab it from the shelf and read it again.

Meet the Author

Liz was born in Dublin in 1967, where she now lives. She has written successfully for soap opera, radio drama, television plays, short stories and animation for children.

Liz’s first novel Unravelling Oliver was published to critical and popular acclaim in March 2014. It quickly became a firm favourite with book clubs and reader’s groups. In November of that year, it went on to win the Ireland AM Crime Novel of the Year at the Bord Gais Energy Book Awards and was long listed for the International Dublin Literature Prize 2016. She was also the winner of the inaugural Jack Harte Bursary provided by the Irish Writers Centre and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Dec 2014. Her second novel, Lying in Wait, was published in July 2016 and went straight to number 1 where it remained for seven weeks. Liz won the Monaco Bursary from the Ireland Funds and was Writer in Residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco in Sept/Oct 2016. In Nov 2016, Lying in Wait won the prestigious RTE Ryan Tubridy Listener’s Choice prize at the Irish Book Awards.

Aside from writing, Liz has led workshops in writing drama for broadcast, she has produced and managed literary salons and curated literary strands of Arts Festivals. She regularly does public interviews and panel discussions on all aspects of her writing.


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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