Posted in Netgalley

Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent

Published: Penguin Paperback Edition 21st Jan 2021

Never have the famous words of Phillip Larkin – ‘they fuck you up your Mum and Dad’ – been so apt. Reading this book was a very interesting experience and patience definitely paid off. Had I given in to my impulses and thrown the book down in frustration during the first part, I would have missed out on a great read. The story of three brothers over their lifetimes is compelling, interesting and a great study in how mental health difficulties can be passed on from one generation to the next.

The structure of the novel is what I had difficulty with at first. The first section was narrated by the eldest brother, Will. Written in short chapters, slipping between decades, we see aspects of his childhood through to the present day where he is a successful movie producer. He meets his wife Kate through his brother Brian,when she’s brought to a family dinner. They have a little girl called Daisy, but Will is much more focused on work than he is his family. We get the sense that Kate is a long suffering woman who gets more support from Brian, who is now Daisy’s godfather as well as her uncle. Brian is there for the birthdays and school concerts and has a great rapport with Daisy. Will is dismissive of Brian and his lack of ambition. He is also dismissive of Luke, despite Luke’s success as a pop star in his late teens. This section was difficult to read because I disliked him from page one. I didn’t think I could stand to listen to his perspective for a whole book. This made me think about my own bias and prejudice – what would I have done if he was a client and I was his counsellor? My main interest was in how close Will was to his Mum and through flashbacks we see she favours him, quite openly.

Luke, by contrast, really gets the brunt of their mother’s moods. He is the youngest, the weakest perhaps, but he is attractive and in his teenage years soon finds real success as a pop star. However, in the later fragments of his life he has times of struggle, where his mental health is poor and he turns to drink or experiments with drugs. He is an unusual child with a religious fixation to the extent where the family priest thinks he has a vocation! The other boys use his goodness against him, he is manipulated by them and by blaming him, they get extra food and attention. Only his Dad seemed wise to this, and just how poisonous the brothers, particularly Will, can be. There are moments where it seems his life is on track and he could be happy, but others where I wondered if he was just not meant for this world.

Finally, there’s Brian the middle brother. If Will is his Mum’s favourite and Luke is doted on by his Dad, who is left for Brian? He does seem mentally torn between both parents, but is without a champion in the same sense his brothers have one. Will is very dismissive of him, even though Brian does so much for his niece. He’s not grateful when Brian stands in for him, but instead is scornful that Brian has nothing more important to do. Will only recognises material success, not the strength or reward of happy relationships. Brian is the one who looks after Luke when his mental health deteriorates, but Will never recognises or appreciates this. In fact Brian’s relationship with Will becomes so destructive that other family members get caught in the crossfire.

The genius of this book is in the knowledge of family dynamics and how destructive they can be, but also in it’s clever structure. As mentioned, during the first part, narrated by Will, I was ready to put the book down. I couldn’t stand him. He was arrogant, self-centred and treats women appallingly. If the whole book had been his viewpoint I might have thrown it out of the window. Just when I was at the point of giving up, I saw Luke’s name across the next section and it was such a relief. As the tale goes back and forth in time and perspective we see a tiny bit more of the whole. At a Bob Dylan concert at a local castle, Will ends up in a fight and is taken to hospital with Dad and Luke following behind. Mum is left behind at the castle and doesn’t arrive at the hospital till late. We think that maybe she’s been caught out here, or that she simply cares more about enjoying herself than her son. But, this is Will’s perspective, for once his Mum has let him down. However, through Luke’s narrative we learn the truth, that something terrible happened to her, something that explains so much about how she behaves. When we finally get Brian’s section we see what a lifetime of being in the middle feels like; he feels overlooked, unconsidered and brushed aside. We find out things we already suspected and other things that surprise and enlighten us. Every single strand of this novel teaches us that we are only ever a small part of the picture and we must step back to see the whole.

This brings me to the second line of Larkin’s poem This Must Be The Verse and easily the best; – ‘they do not mean to but they do’. There are parts of this novel, particularly the way Dad behaves, where genuine mistakes are made and misunderstandings occur in the same way they do with any family. No parent, however hard they try, will get it completely right. However, there are other situations where the mental damage seems deliberate, especially in their mother’s attitude to Luke. Will’s intervention in Luke’s relationship, and the treatment of Will’s daughter Daisy towards the end of the novel are not mistakes. These acts are more than little cruelties. They are deliberately causing lifelong psychological disturbance. This is a complex and interesting novel that deftly moves from one narrow perspective to another, finally giving us all the pieces of the emotional jigsaw puzzle that makes up this family.

Meet The Author

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.