Strange Sally Diamond
A dive into the dark side of human nature, the nadir of our own moral stance.
In her most mature and volatile work so far, Liz Nugent reaches the peak of her writing career and delivers a novel that is equally disturbing and arresting while she creates a protagonist, the titular "Strange Sally Diamond", who will become etched on your memories for a long time after completing the reading of the novel. Nugent, who began her career in 2013 when her debut novel, Unraveling Oliver, was published, has illustrated her tendency to tackle subjects and motifs aiming to dismantle the myth around the -indeed ambiguous and debatable- inherent goodness and morality in humans. Kevin O' Sullivan writes in his review of the book in Irishexaminer.com: "[Nugent is] attracted to the sinister, the seedy, the cynical", thus summarizing in a few words the author's thematic preferences. The Irish author's books are, collectively, an attempt to shine a light on the dark side of human behavior and her characters are frequently monster-like figures lacking what we like to consider as the essential traits that define us as human beings. Strange Sally Diamond loyally broaches this particularly perplexing theme, thus the readers should be brace themselves for some truly nasty personifications of the most primitive behavioral aspects that unleashed with raw force when we deal with people who are labelled as "different" in any way imaginable.
The main character and chief narrator of the story is Sally Diamond, a 40-year-old woman living a mile outside a little hamlet in Ireland’s thinly populated County Roscommon. Sally lives there along with her father, a former psychiatrist who resigned from the clinic and continued his scientific career by writing articles for medical journals, while her mother, we learn early, has passed away a few years back. The story begins with Sally's father dying from a chronic disease and leaving behind a (foster) daughter alone to deal with the troubles and grievances of everyday life. The addition of the adjective "Strange" before Sally's full name is indicative of her odd behavior and her complete ineptitude in social situations. The protagonist harbors an overwhelming feeling of disconnection with her surroundings and the other people, a trait following her since her early childhood. She is unable to discern the metaphor and irony used in day-to-day interactions all over the world and she perceives everything literally and at face value. It is for that reason that she opted for pretending to be deaf when going on errands (groceries etc.), thus diminishing the possibilities that somebody might strike a conversation with her. Vicki Weisfeld in Crimefictionlover.com keenly observes: "When you read about a person who interacts with the world in a vastly different way than the norm, you find yourself thinking about the demands of society from new perspectives. When the book is written well and consistently, as it is here by Liz Nugent, you start to realise how much we take for granted in our relations with other people and the world around us."
Sally finds herself in a tough predicament when her father dies and she decides to dispose his remains in a rather unorthodox way, that is to cremate him in an incinerator barrel. This is another misunderstanding caused by Sally's peculiar "sickness" or "eccentricity" as her father, shortly before he passed away, told her: “Just put me out with the bins,”, but not in the literal sense of the words. This event turns Sally's mundane existence upside down as she becomes the person of interest for the police, the few people who stand beside her such as her Aunt and doctor, and the media which are having a field day with that bizarre happening in the rural parts of the country. Sally will be forced to face her fears and engage in meaningful communication with the others, a no small feat for a woman who never had a single friend in her life. The reason(s) that lurk behind Sally's oddness are gradually divulged to the reader through some letters that her father left her as well as a few audio cassettes dating back to the days when both Sally's foster parents were working in the mental hospital.
Sally's mother, Denise, had been abducted from the garden of her house at the age of 11 from a vile individual named Conor Geary. Geary held Denise captive for -more or less- 16 years and he was the one who fathered Denise's little baby Mary (later named Sally by her foster parents. Denise never managed to overcome the trauma caused by the chronic abuse, mental and physical, in the hands of a psychopath while her daughter, our protagonist, survived and was then adopted by two of her mother's supervisors in the mental clinic. Throughout the novel, we watch the destructive effects of abuse and violence and their impact on the lives of both victims and culprits. Despite the morbid nature of the main theme, there is a sneaky humor pervading some parts of the story, a quirky, gloomy farce that primarily stems from Sally's difficulties in using the language properly. However, you have to keep in mind that Strange Sally Diamond is by no means an easy or fun read and you will experience various states of emotional havoc as the descriptions are lurid and the narrative so potent that you feel like inhabiting the narrators' minds as we move forward. Apart from Sally, there is a second narrator also, Peter, the young son of Conor Geary who also suffered his father's abuse for several years and left him with more than one scars. Peter's story is set chronologically several years earlier than the main narrative.
There is a whiff of Nordic crime fiction influences here and there were times that the narrative brought to my mind some notable works by Scandinavian writers such as Erik Axl Sund, Karin Fossum, and more recently Anna Mette Hancock. This is Liz Nugent's fifth novel and the crown jewel of her work to date. Wholeheartedly recommended to those who prefer their crime novels to be a bit darker than usual.
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