Yes, the eponymous protagonist of Liz Nugent’s new crime mystery, Strange Sally Diamond, is strange. And for good reason.
Sally lives a mile outside a small village in Ireland’s sparsely populated County Roscommon. Alone with her father since her mother died several years earlier, Sally is in her early 40s and has become her father’s caretaker. She’s not at all social, but with his illness, she’s had to go into the village to do errands and buy groceries, and she minimises her interactions with people by pretending to be deaf. Isolation presses on her from many sides.
When her Dad dies, she takes literally his jocular advice, “Just put me out with the bins,” and attempts to cremate him in an incinerator barrel. Before long, to Sally’s surprise, this brings the garda to her door. With the attention and publicity that results, Sally’s chances of keeping others out of her life are reduced to zero. The deluge of police, media, true-crime podcasters and the frankly curious descends quickly, and Sally has to be constantly learning and fine-tuning how to relate to all of them.
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 doesn’t use computers, she has no friends, she remembers nothing until her seventh birthday. She does watch television, but has no real-life experience to teach her that there should be a funeral and that backyard cremation isn’t acceptable. At the funeral for her father arranged by others, she wears a red-sequined beret, because her dad said it was for special occasions.
When the authorities and the public realise who she is, any hope of regaining her privacy evaporates. Sally’s biological mother, Denise Norton, was kidnapped at age 11, chained to the wall of her room, and held captive for almost 16 years by a misogynistic psychopath named Conor Geary. By doling out devastating new revelations about this experience and its tragic aftermath, chapter by chapter, Nugent keeps the story tension high. It’s a fine, well-paced piece of storytelling. People often comment about a book, “I couldn’t put it down.” I couldn’t.
Denise was finally found by a burglar with a young daughter – Sally. Her captor had fled. Under psychiatric care, Denise committed suicide. The people Sally first thought were ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ were the physician and psychiatrist who cared for her and Denise in a psychiatric hospital. At first their adopting her seems a kindness, but you may begin to sense that the psychiatrist father was every bit as controlling as Conor Geary, at least in a psychological sense. That need for control, who has it, who doesn’t, is a powerful theme here.
Nugent never gives Sally a clinical diagnosis – the psychiatrist says she’s not autistic – and when something she does or says causes comment, she blames it on her peculiar circumstances in those early years. The village comes together to try to support this damaged woman and get her the help she needs, in the form of a few tentative friendships, a kindly general practitioner, and a therapist who helps Sally learn to trust people. Nevertheless, Sally doesn’t escape the kind of casual cruelty inflicted on anyone perceived as ‘different.’ Nugent underscores this issue by creating a few characters for whom prejudice is a guiding principle. Their presence in the novel hints at reservoirs of animus just beneath the surface.
Partway through, you discover that Denise had an earlier child by Conor Geary, a son, whom he took with him when he fled to New Zealand. The descriptions of her brother’s circumscribed life in Rotorua much resemble Sally’s. Even though they both live in attractive and interesting parts of the world, it’s like they’ve gone through life with blinders on, only seeing what Dad and Geary wanted them to see, keeping themselves apart from all else.
You feel overwhelming compassion for the lives warped by Geary – not just his kidnap victims but their children, their siblings left behind, and the parents who never knew what happened to them. There’s a lot in this novel to think about, and it won’t leave you quickly.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars