Book Review: “Strange Sally Diamond” by Liz Nugent
Irish crime novelist Liz Nugent is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. Of the previous books of hers that I have read, all of them have been outstanding. Unraveling Oliver was an enthralling read with a twist ending, and Lying in Wait was even more diabolical with its devastating conclusion, too. Now comes Nugent’s latest work, Strange Sally Diamond, and it is a delicious read indeed. Like its predecessors, it has an ending of sorts that you might not see coming. And it’s obvious from reading all these books that Nugent is an author of considerable skill — plus, she has the hardware to back it up. She has won four Irish Book Awards and the James Joyce Medal for Literature. With that knowledge in hand, you can say that Nugent is an author who can transcend the genre she’s working in. She’s not a particularly literary writer, but her work is solid and, what’s more, entertaining. It may also make you feel a tad bit uncomfortable, as she can write effective thrillers where life isn’t always fair to their main characters. Indeed, Nugent’s real talent lies in the fact that she knows how to write compelling and complex characters who may not have anyone’s best interests at heart. That’s what makes Nugent so special — she can twist the screws rather well when she needs to.
I don’t think I’m giving away much detail in this paragraph where I summarize the book because Strange Sally Diamond is upfront early on about various aspects of its plot. (However, if you want to be surprised by this book, you can jump down a paragraph.) This novel may be a less crime-oriented book on the surface than past efforts of the author’s and is less of a whodunnit and more of a whydunnuit. (This is also not an original thought: others on the Interwebs have said the same thing.) It’s also more of a slow burn of a read. It takes its time to get going, but once it does (about midway through), you won’t be able to put this story down. It concerns the titular character, who, when we’re introduced to her, has thrown her recently deceased adopted dad’s remains into an incinerator behind her house because she has mistaken his instructions on how he would like to be buried. The result of this causes a bit of a media uproar in Ireland, where the book is largely set, and it turns out there might be a reason for Sally’s weirdness that seems to border as being somewhere on the autism spectrum at first blush. It turns out that Sally is so unusual because she has buried trauma issues: her real birth mother was kidnapped as an 11-year-old and tied to a chain inside a barn or shed behind a pedophile’s house. Sally (born with the name Mary) came into existence when her birth mother was around 18 years old and lived with her in that barn for seven years — a time of which she remembers absolutely nothing. The book then recounts Sally’s attempts to reintegrate into society since both of her adopted parents are now dead and she must make it through life on her own — which is difficult because her adopted father sheltered her. Meanwhile, Sally is getting strange gifts in the mail from New Zealand and a man she has recently met has become infatuated with her and her case. Is any of this (the gifts and her new friend’s obsession) connected to Sally’s horrible and deplorable upbringing?
The interesting thing about this novel is that it shares common ground with another book by a female author with partial Irish heritage: Emma Donoghue and her book Room. Strange Sally Diamond may be a bit off-putting because of that — not because the subject matter is so repulsive, but because this ground has been covered elsewhere before. However, there are some zingers in terms of plot twists happening here, and that’s its main selling point because of its carbon copy cloning of a previous novel. However, if you’ve read Room (and I hope I’m not spoiling anything here), only half of that book is spent in captivity. This book lingers on it a bit longer, since it is also partially narrated by Sally’s brother, Peter, who was born not long after Sally’s/Mary’s birth mother was abducted. Peter is close to Sally’s/Mary’s biological father who is also very misogynistic in addition to being a child kidnapper and rapist. So we see the world through Peter’s eyes, and that worldview is pretty warped as he is led to believe that he has a skin condition that prevents him from getting close to others and has also learned that women are not to be trusted by his father. In a sense, Strange Sally Diamond is a character study of what makes certain men turn out to be so rotten, in so much as it is a novel about what happens to someone who has experienced violence as a child.
This is a rip-roaring great read once things begin to pick up and the chapters end on cliffhangers. My only complaint about the book is that it has multiple endings — it would have been fine to just end on one character’s story because it is so repugnant (it would have made a great shock final ending) rather than pile on a couple of other endings to tie up loose ends and redeem certain characters. Well, I guess I have two complaints: the book does take its time to become an exciting, thrill ride of a read. It marinades in Sally’s uniqueness, but once Sally begins to change, the reader begins to identify with her and root for her to pull through all the weirdness that is being thrown her way. Despite those complaints, this is still a more than worthwhile read. This is a commanding character study of people who do bad things — sometimes because they were just born that way, and sometimes because life experiences have molded them a certain way. At the end of the day, Strange Sally Diamond is a good book and another feather in Liz Nugent’s cap. World, I want to introduce to you one of my newest favourite writers, because this novel proves that its author is worthy of a lot of accolades for writing things that deviate from the normal thriller “thrill rides.” Strange Sally Diamond surely is a treat and proves that anything Nugent touches is mostly gold.
Liz Nugent’s Strange Sally Diamond will be published by Simon & Shuster Canada on July 18, 2023.
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